Auxiliary verbs – the signals of time.
Auxiliary verbs are fantastic little things! They act like mini-discourse markers at the beginning of sentences, except instead of signaling an emotion or intent, they signal a time. That’s how we know when an action happened in a question or a negative form, by the auxiliary.
Discourse markers are words or phrases which prepare the listener for what is to come. Like if you’re driving and you see a signpost which tells you that your destination is 200km away and to the left. The sign not only tells you the distance and which way to turn, it also mentally prepares you for the journey ahead. It gets you thinking about whether or not you need petrol, if you need to go to the toilet. You think about when you will stop for a break, now or towards the end of the journey? That sign situates you within your journey. It offers you comfort and the power to make informed decisions. Signposts are important not only for telling us where to go but also for making us feel more comfortable whilst going there.
In language we use signposts too. If a teacher is talking to a student and says I read your essay. Unfortunately…. The student gasps upon hearing this word. There is a small intake of breath as they prepare themselves for what surely will be bad news. Can I be blunt with you? Another signpost. Whatever they are going to say, it’s probably terrible! They will tell me some horrible truth about myself. The answer to can I be blunt with you? is of course, always yes! As human beings we are naturally curious about other’s perception of ourselves. I’ve got some good news and some bad news is an old favourite. Which do you want to hear first?
Which brings me back to auxiliary verbs. They are words like is, was, have, do, will and did. They go with a verb and through them we know the tense. For example, if I ask do you walk to work?, you know that I am asking if you walk to work generally, every day, usually. Did you walk to work? Now we’re talking about a specific point in the past. But that’s an important idea. The listener must know when you are talking about if you use did. They know because you either say it or it’s implicit in the idea. If you walk up to a person and ask did you go to the cinema?, their impulse is to immediately ask when? They need a time because you asked did.
If I ask have you walked to work?, it’s not necessary to specify the time. Have you implies a time before now. Any time. Have you been to Japan? Yes? When? Now you talk in the past. I went three years ago etc. Have you been …ing? Again, the listener knows that the question refers to recently, to a time close to now. This is the present perfect continuous tense, a tense we use when we see evidence of an action. For example, I see someone out of breath (the evidence) and I ask have you been running? As soon as they hear have you been…? They know that my question refers to something recently and also to some evidence that they have spotted. If someone asks you out of the blue have you been sewing? You would most probably respond with why do you ask? You are wondering what possible evidence they see to ask whether or not you have been sewing.
In class, students often have a problem between the simple past (I did), the present perfect (I have done) and the present perfect continuous (I’ve been doing). There is no need for this to be problematic as long as you think about them in relation to time. I did requires a specific named past time. Either you say it or the other person knows exactly what time you are referring to. If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an action which happened in an unnamed time in the past but has importance for now. Perhaps a message for now. If you say I’ve eaten, the message for now is I’m not hungry. If you say I’ve done everything to your boss, the message for now is perhaps can I go now?
If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect
Having said all of that, there is a challenge for students regarding understanding the concept. It is often not the same in other languages and does need time to sink in. The good news (nice discourse marker!) is that there is a ‘eureka’ moment. A moment when the student suddenly gets it. It’s one of those really satisfying moments when learning a language which can be so frustrating at times.
In the meantime, learners need to be as aware as possible of those little magic words, auxiliary verbs.