Grammar Wednesday *Edited*

Helping verbs!

One of my favorite lessons in my public speaking classes is the one about the First Amendment. To begin the lesson, I write the text on the board:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

(and, yes; I know it by heart. I’m dorky that way).

I ask them what it is that I’ve just written on the board. Most of them struggle with this, asking hesitantly if it’s from the Declaration of Independence, until someone stumbles on the First Amendment or, on rare occasions, someone knows what it is right off and we move on to step two, where I ask them what the First Amendment actually does. Most of them are quick with an answer somewhere along the lines of “it guarantees freedom of religion and the press.”

“Ummmm, not quite,” I say.

It’s at this point that the English teacher in me comes out, and she asks them to dissect the sentence. “What’s the subject of this sentence,” I ask, and most of them are able to produce “Congress,” for which they are duly praised.

“Ok,” I say, “what’s the verb?”

Never yet has a class been able to come up with the complete verb of shall make.

Helping verbs are verbs that are used in a verb phrase to show tense or emphasis, or form a question or a negative. Helping verbs are used to show the perfect verb tenses, continuous/progressive verb tenses, and passive voice. With only a few exceptions that I can think of (“I do” in wedding vows and such), these words never stand alone; they are always used with other verbs.

There are 23 helping verbs, and I learned them by rote in somewhat alphabetical order:

be, being, been
do, does, did
can, will, shall
could, would, should
has, have, had
may, might, must
am, is, are, was, were

I am planning to go the dance, but only if I have the right dress.

She is happy to see you, but she’d prefer you didn’t stare at her quite so intensely.

He has been to the show and found it to be somewhat disappointing.

Several of these helping verbs (can, will, shall; may, might, must; and would, could, should), are called modals. These are used to show possibility, necessity, or probability.

Jessica might take the job offer; she has not decided yet.

I can cook fantastic cakes, but my custards are less of a sure thing.

You should be careful around Dennis; he may turn on you when you least expect it.

Please notice in the first sentence immediately above and the second sentence in the first set of examples that “not” in “she has not decided yet” and “she’d prefer you didn’t stare” is not part of the verb phrases has decided and did stare. Not is an adverb used to express negation and is never part of a verb phrase.

Also notice, in the second sentence in the first set, that “she’d” is a contraction for “she would.” If you were to parse out all the verbs in that sentence, you’d (you would) need to include the modal would prefer along with did stare in order to get full credit.

Get it?

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

*edited to include; am I the only one to notice that I posted this on TUESDAY?!  Don’t *I* feel like a moron for not knowing what frickin’ day it is!  You’ll get a double-shot of grammar this week; I’ll post the answer to a Kizz question tomorrow.*

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7 Comments

Filed under Grammar

7 responses to “Grammar Wednesday *Edited*

  1. This is fantastic! Thanks for a simple way to teach my students helping verbs. So, tell me, do you get back to the “not quite” part of the lesson about the First Amendment?

  2. Thanks, Dingo. I found that learning them mostly-alphabetically was the best way for me to not leave any of them out.

    The First Amendment lesson is part of my “free and ethical speech” unit in the public speaking class, and yes, I DO get back to the “not quite” part. What I want the students to come away with is the idea that the ONLY thing the First Amendment does is guarantee that CONGRESS can’t make laws that limit speech, assembly, or religion. Then I trot out Imus (and others like him; there’s really no shortage of really rich and beautiful examples) and get them to understand that just because they’re protected FEDERALLY doesn’t mean they can’t get themselves in a whole lottta trouble by saying something stupid in public. Lately, given the current administration’s track record, I’ve been adding that they potentially CAN get in trouble federally, too (warrantless wiretaps, anyone?).

  3. Thanks for clearing up the tuesday/wednesday thing because I almost had a mild panic attack thinking I forgot my daughter’s birthday.

  4. It gets a little bit more complicated – it is English after all.

    A few of your 23 auxiliaries are just inflections of other ones, such as has and had, which are inflections of have. Similarly for am, is, are, was, were, being and beenwith respect to be. Same goes for did and do.

    Historically speaking, one might argue that might is a tense inflection of may, and so on for should~shall, etc., but synchronically (considering only the language as it is now, ignoring historical data) this isn’t true. Rather it is now true that the modal auxiliaries are unmarked for tense, contain implied tense or otherwise are used to construct periphrastic (larger than a single word) tense constructions, like will V for the future.

    Curiously, you include being in this list, but omit other participles, like having, or doing. I’d rather omit them all, calling them inflections of the base verbs be, have and do, specifically, progressive participles which are used to construct progressive aspectual clauses.

    Also, there are some auxiliaries, albeit slightly archaic ones, that you’ve missed, an example being ought. And there’s another auxiliary, I notice, that could be included here: get, as in the pizza got eaten, which is a passive inchoative.

    It might also help to point out that apart from the modals, the few auxiliaries (be, have, do and get) all occur as full lexical verbs as in the sentences:
    I am tall
    I have no money
    I do crosswords
    He got some food

    With all this in mind, I don’t think I could calculate a final number of auxiliaries in English, and this doesn’t even take into account dialectal variation; it’s possible in Appalachian English, for instance, to stack modal auxiliaries – He might could go – whereas in most dialects this is strictly forbidden. Also in some dialects it’s defensible to analyse things like gonna and wanna as modals. It might make you cringe, but it’s just another example of English syntax being in a continual state of flux.

  5. By the way, only one of those example sentences is true.

  6. …and here is where Jangari beautifully illustrates the difference between linguists and English teachers. It’s hard enough to get kids to understand that, sometimes, there are two or more verbs in a sentence; can you IMAGINE trying to make them understand all THAT?! Hell, I’m not sure *I* understand it (grin!)!

  7. I noticed that it was Tuesday but I figured you had a plan. Oops.

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