English auxiliaries and contractions

In English grammar, certain verb forms are classified as auxiliary verbs.[1] Exact definitions of this term vary; an auxiliary verb is generally conceived as one with little semantic meaning of its own, which modifies the meaning of another verb with which it co-occurs. In English, verbs are often classed as auxiliaries on the basis of certain grammatical properties, particularly as regards their syntax – primarily whether they participate in subject–auxiliary inversion, and can be negated by the simple addition of not after them.

Certain auxiliaries have contracted forms, such as 'd and 'll for had/would and will/shall. There are also many contractions formed from the negations of auxiliary verbs, ending in n't (a reduced form of not). These latter contractions can participate in inversion as a unit (as in Why haven't you done it?, where the uncontracted form would be Why have you not done it?), and thus in a certain sense can be regarded as auxiliary verbs in their own right.

For details about the verbs classed as modal auxiliaries, see English modal verbs.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliaries as helping verbs

An auxiliary verb is most generally understood as a verb that "helps" another verb by adding grammatical information to it.[2] On this basis, the auxiliary verbs of English may be taken to include:

The following are examples of sentences containing the above types of auxiliary verbs:

Do you want tea? do is an auxiliary accompanying the verb want, used here to form a question.
He had given his all. had is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle given, expressing perfect aspect.
We are singing. are is an auxiliary accompanying the present participle singing, expressing progressive aspect.
It was destroyed. was is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle destroyed, expressive passive voice.
He can do it now. can is a modal auxiliary accompanying the verb do.

However the above understanding of auxiliary verbs is not always strictly adhered to in the literature, particularly in the case of forms of the verb be, which may be called auxiliaries even when they do not accompany another verb. Other approaches to defining auxiliary verbs are described in the following sections.

Auxiliaries as verbs with special grammatical behavior

There is a group of English verbs which have certain special grammatical (syntactic) properties that distinguish them from other verbs. This group consists mainly of verbs that are auxiliaries in the above sense – verbs that add grammatical meaning to other verbs – and thus some authors use the term "auxiliary verb", in relation to English, to denote precisely the verbs in this group. However, not all enumerations of English auxiliary verbs correspond exactly to the group of verbs having these grammatical properties. This group of verbs may also be referred to by other names, such as "special verbs".[3]

The principal distinguishing properties of verbs in this special group are as follows:

The group of verbs with the above properties consists of:

If membership of this syntactic class is considered to be the defining property for auxiliary verbs, it is therefore the above-listed verbs that will be considered as auxiliaries. Additionally, non-indicative and non-finite forms of the same verbs (when performing the same functions) are usually described as auxiliaries too, even though all or most of the distinctive syntactical properties do not apply to them specifically. This concerns be (as infinitive, imperative and subjunctive), being and been; and when used in the expression of perfect aspect, have, having and had.

The chief difference between this syntactic definition of "auxiliary verb" and the functional definition given in the section above is that the syntactic definition includes the verb be even when used simply as a copular verb, in sentences like I am hungry and It was a cat, where it does not accompany any other verb.[6] For this and other differences in the sets of words identified as auxiliaries by various authors, see the following section.

Sometimes, non-auxiliary uses of have follow auxiliary syntax, as in Have you any ideas? and I haven't a clue. Other lexical verbs do not do this in modern English, although they did so formerly, and such uses as I know not... can be found in archaic English.

Differences in listings of auxiliary verbs

Lists or sets of auxiliary verbs in English, as given by various authors, generally consist of most or all of the verbs mentioned in the above sections, though with minor discrepancies.[7]

The main differences between the various proposed sets of auxiliary verbs are noted below.

As mentioned below, the contractions of negated forms of auxiliary verbs (isn't, shouldn't, etc.) behave in a certain sense as if they were auxiliaries in their own right, in that they can participate as a whole in subject–auxiliary inversion.

Meaning contribution

Forms of the verbs have and be, used as auxiliaries with a main verb's past participle and present participle respectively, express perfect aspect and progressive aspect. When forms of be are used with the past participle, they express passive voice. It is possible to combine any two or all three of these uses:

The room has been being cleaned for the past three hours.

Here the auxiliaries has, been and being (each followed by the appropriate participle type) combine to express perfect and progressive aspect and passive voice.

The auxiliary do (does, did) does not necessarily make any meaning contribution (?), although it can be used to add emphasis to a clause. This is called the emphatic mood in English. An example of this use is found in "I do go to work on time every day." Also, "Do" does help in the formation of questions, negations, etc., as described in the article on do-support. Some other languages, such as German do not have an emphatic mood, and such emphasis is given either by the tone of voice of the speaker or by the use of adverbs.

Other auxiliaries – the modal verbs – contribute meaning chiefly in the form of modality, although some of them (particularly will and sometimes shall) express future time reference. Their uses are detailed at English modal verbs, and tables summarizing their principal meaning contributions can be found in the articles Modal verb and Auxiliary verb.

For more details on the uses of auxiliaries to express aspect, mood and time reference, see English clause syntax.


Contractions are a common feature of English, used frequently in ordinary speech. In written English, contractions are used in some semiformal writing and mostly in informal writing.[13] They usually involve the elision of a vowel – an apostrophe being inserted in its place in written English – possibly accompanied by other changes. Many of these contractions involve auxiliary verbs and their negations, although not all of these have common contractions, and there are also certain other contractions not involving these verbs.

Contractions were first used in speech during the early 17th century and in writing during the mid 17th century when not lost its stress and tone and formed the contraction n't. Around the same time, contracted auxiliaries were first used. When it was first used, it was limited in writing to only fiction and drama. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the use of contractions in writing spread outside of fiction such as personal letters, journalism, and descriptive texts. [13]

Certain contractions tend to be restricted to speech and very informal writing, such as John'd or Mary'd for "John/Mary would" (compare the personal pronoun forms I'd and you'd, which are more likely to be encountered in relatively informal writing). This applies in particular to constructions involving consecutive contractions, such as wouldn't've for "would not have".

Contractions in English are generally not mandatory as in some other languages. It is almost always acceptable to use the uncontracted form, although in speech this may seem overly formal. This is often done for emphasis: I am ready! The uncontracted form of an auxiliary or copula must be used in elliptical sentences where its complement is omitted: Who's ready? I am! (not *I'm!).

Some contractions lead to homophony, which sometimes causes errors in writing. Confusion is particularly common between it's (for "it is/has") and the pronoun possessive its, and sometimes similarly between you're and your. For the confusion of have or 've with of (as in "would of" for would have), see Weak and strong forms in English.

Contractions of the type described here should not be confused with abbreviations, such as Ltd. for "Limited (company)". Contraction-like abbreviations, such as int'l for international, are considered abbreviations as their contracted forms cannot be pronouced in speech. Abbreviations also include acronyms and initialisms.

Contracted auxiliaries

The following contractions of auxiliary verbs (including forms of be, whether as a strict auxiliary or as a copula) are used:

The contraction 's (representing is, 'has or does) is pronounced in the same way as the regular plural ending -(e)s and possessive ending 's, namely as /ɪz/ or /ə/ when following a sibilant sound, as /s/ when following any other voiceless consonant, and as /z/ otherwise.

Negative contractions

Contractions of negated auxiliary verbs in Standard English are formed by reducing the negative grammatical particle not to n't, a clitic or suffix which is fused to the root verb form (which is modified in a few cases). The n't may form a separate syllable, as in isn't and wouldn't (which are two-syllable words), or may become part of the preceding syllable, as in the monosyllables don't, aren't and weren't.

The standard contractions for negation of auxiliaries are as follows:

The above contractions can appear when the verb follows auxiliary-type syntax as defined in the section Auxiliaries as verbs with special grammatical behavior § Notes. This includes all uses of be, and for some speakers have when used to denote possession (as in I haven't a clue). For details of the usage of the modal contractions, see the relevant sections of English modal verbs. For the possibility of inverting a negative contraction with the clause subject, see § Contractions and inversion below.

The following four of the standard negative contractions involve changes to the form of the auxiliary.

Note that there is no standard contraction for am not except in inversion. This is known as the "amn't gap". Some non-standard contractions for this and certain other negations are described in the following sections.

Contractions representing am not

Although there is no contraction for am not in standard English, there are certain colloquial or dialectal forms that may fill this role. These may be used in declarative sentences, whose standard form contains I am not, and in questions, with standard form am I not? In the declarative case the standard contraction I'm not is available, but this does not apply in questions, where speakers may feel the need for a negative contraction to form the analog of isn't it, aren't they, etc. (see § Contractions and inversion below).

The following are sometimes used in place of am not in the cases described above:

There is therefore no completely satisfactory first-person alternative to aren't you? and isn't it? in standard English. The grammatical am I not? sounds stilted or affected, while aren't I? is grammatically dubious, and ain't I? is considered substandard.[21] Nonetheless, aren't I? is the solution adopted in practice by most speakers.

Other colloquial contractions

Ain't (described in more detail in the article ain't) is a colloquialism and contraction for "am not", "is not", "are not", "has not", and "have not".[22] In some dialects "ain't" is also used as a contraction of "do not", "does not", and "did not". The usage of "ain't" is a perennial subject of controversy in English.[23]

"Ain't" has several antecedents in English, corresponding to the various forms of "to be not" and "to have not".

"An't" (sometimes "a'n't") arose from "am not" (via "amn't") and "are not" almost simultaneously. "An't" first appears in print in the work of English Restoration playwrights. In 1695 "an't" was used as a contraction of "am not", and as early as 1696 "an't" was used to mean "are not". "An't" for "is not" may have developed independently from its use for "am not" and "are not". "Isn't" was sometimes written as "in't" or "en't", which could have changed into "an't". "An't" for "is not" may also have filled a gap as an extension of the already-used conjugations for "to be not".

"An't" with a long "a" sound began to be written as "ain't", which first appears in writing in 1749. By the time "ain't" appeared, "an't" was already being used for "am not", "are not", and "is not". "An't" and "ain't" coexisted as written forms well into the nineteenth century.

"Han't" or "ha'n't", an early contraction for "has not" and "have not", developed from the elision of the "s" of "has not" and the "v" of "have not". "Han't" also appeared in the work of English Restoration playwrights. Much like "an't", "han't" was sometimes pronounced with a long "a", yielding "hain't". With H-dropping, the "h" of "han't" or "hain't" gradually disappeared in most dialects, and became "ain't". "Ain't" as a contraction for "has not"/"have not" appeared in print as early as 1819. As with "an't", "han't" and "ain't" were found together late into the nineteenth century.

Some other colloquial and dialect contractions are described below:

Contractions not involving auxiliaries

The following contractions used in English do not involve either auxiliaries (as defined in this article) or their negations:

Contractions and inversion

In cases of subject–auxiliary inversion, particularly in the formation of questions, the negative contractions can remain together as a unit and invert with the subject, thus acting as if they were auxiliary verbs in their own right. For example:

He is going. → Is he going? (regular affirmative question formation)
He isn't going. → Isn't he going? (negative question formation; isn't inverts with he)

The alternative is not to use the contraction, in which case only the verb inverts with the subject, while the not remains in place after it:

He is not going. → Is he not going?

Note that the form with isn't he is no longer a simple contraction of the fuller form (which must be is he not, and not *is not he). Some more examples:

Why haven't you washed? / Why have you not washed?
Can't you sing? / Can you not sing? (the full form cannot is redivided in case of inversion)
Where wouldn't they look for us? / Where would they not look for us?

The contracted forms of the questions are more usual in informal English. They are commonly found in tag questions. For the possibility of using aren't I (or other dialectal alternatives) in place of the uncontracted am I not, see Contractions representing am not above.

The same phenomenon sometimes occurs in the case of negative inversion:

Not only doesn't he smoke, ... / Not only does he not smoke, ...


  1. Palmer, 1965, p. 19. See also Warner, 1993.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, defines an auxiliary verb as "a verb used to form the tenses, moods, voices, etc. of other verbs".
  3. C.D. Sidhu, An Intensive Course in English, Orient Blackswan, 1976, p. 5.
  4. For examples of the inversion diagnostic used to identify auxiliaries, see for instance Radford (1997:50f., 494), Sag and Wasow (1999:308f.), and Kroeger (2004:253).
  5. The negation diagnostic for identifying auxiliary verbs is employed for instance by Radford (1997:51), Adgar (2003:176f.), and Culicover (2009:177f.).
  6. See Finch (2000:13) concerning the necessity that a given auxiliary verb should accompany a main verb.
  7. For lists of auxiliary verbs as given by various authors, see for instance Radford (2004:324), Crystal (1997:35), and Jurafsky and Martin (2000:322).
  8. Jurafsky and Martin (2000:320) state that copula be is an auxiliary verb. Bresnan (2001:18f.) produces and discusses examples of subject–auxiliary inversion using the copula. Crystal (1997:35) lists be as an auxiliary verb without distinguishing between its various uses (e.g. as a copula or not). Radford (2004:324) suggests that copula be is not an auxiliary, but does not address why it behaves like an auxiliary with respect to the criteria he employs (e.g. inversion) for identifying auxiliaries. Copular verbs may be identified as auxiliaries in other languages also: Tesnière (1959) repeatedly refers to the copula être in French as an auxiliary verb, and Eroms (2000:138f.) discusses the copula sein in German as a Hilfsverb ("helping/auxiliary verb").
  9. Palmer (1965:19) includes ought (to) as an auxiliary verb, but Warner (1993:8) does not, on the grounds that the following infinitive requires the particle to.
  10. For some discussion of the status of dare as a "marginal modal", see Fowler (1996:195f). Palmer (1965:19) includes dare and need as auxiliaries.
  11. Palmer (1965:40) gives arguments for including better or (ha)d better as auxiliaries, but Warner (1993:3) does not include them. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996:195) lists used to as a "marginal modal". Palmer (1965:19) includes it with the auxiliaries, but Warner (1993:8) does not, on the grounds that the following infinitive requires the particle to.
  12. Jurafsky and Martin (2000:22) list have as a modal auxiliary when it appears as have to.
  13. 1 2 Castillo González, Maria del Pilar. Uncontracted Negatives and Negative Contractions in Contemporary English. Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. p.23-28.
  14. 1 2 It is used in declarative sentences rather than questions. Bresnan, Joan (2002). "The lexicon in optimality theory". In Paolo Merla; Suzanne Stevenson (eds). The Lexical Basis of Sentence Processing: Formal, Computational and Experimental Issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 39–58. CiteSeerX accessible. ISBN 1-58811-156-3.
  15. Zwicky, Arnold M.; Geoffrey K. Pullum (1983). "Cliticization vs. inflection: the case of English n't". Language. 59: 502–513. doi:10.2307/413900.
  16. Rissanen, Matti (1999). "Isn't it? or is it not? On the order of postverbal subject and negative particle in the history of English". In Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade; Gunnel Tottie; Wim van der Wurff (eds). Negation in the History of English. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 189–206. ISBN 3-11-016198-2.
  17. Joyce, James. "Chapter 1". Ulysses.
  18. Joyce, James. "Chapter 15". Ulysses.
  19. Jørgensen, Erik (1979). "'Aren't I?' And alternative patterns in modern English". English Studies. 60: 35–41. doi:10.1080/00138387908597940.
  20. "aren't I", Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (1995)
  21. E. Ward Gilman, ed. (1994). "ain't". Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (2nd, revised ed.). Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-87779-132-5.
  22. "ain't", Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage, 1995.
  23. Ryan Dilley, "Why poor grammar ain't so bad" BBC, September 10, 2001, accessed May 13, 2009.
  24. J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas, ch. 53.
  25. The Outharbour Planter by Maurice A. Devine [1859-1915] of Kings Cove, Bonavista Bay, NL: "The times bain't what they used to be, 'bout fifty ye'rs or so ago", as published in Old-Time Songs And Poetry Of Newfoundland: Songs Of The People From The Days Of Our Forefathers (First edition, p. 9, 1927).
  26. Malmstrom, Jean (1960). "Ain't Again". The English Journal. 49: 204–205.


External links

For a list of words relating to Contractions, see the English contractions category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
For a list of words relating to Auxiliary verbs, see the English auxiliary verbs category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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