Verbs: Auxiliaries in English

This exercise is based on chapter 5 of Victoria A. Fromkin, Linguistics - An Introduction to Linguistic Theory, 2000, Blackwell Publishing

In this exercise you will look a bit into a corpus and see if you can make some generalizations about auxiliaries in English using the data from the corpus. As you know verbs can occur in many different shapes and forms. In English we have infinitives, different kind of participles and of course several finite forms. It is assumed here that you know the difference between all this form, if not than you are encouraged to find some grammar source (your highschool English book for example) to read up on it. You should at least be familiar with the following verb forms:

Verb formExample
Infinitive(to) use
Past participleused
Passive participleused
Present participleused
Past tenseused
Present tense (3rd person singular)uses
Present tense (non-3rd person)use

Some of the verb forms from the list above will always appear with some other verb. The past participle for instance always seems to co-occur with a form of the auxiliary have. What we could do now is make some generalizing rule that captures this behaviour. Consider the following rule:

Rule: A sentence with some form of the auxiliay have must contain a past participle.

Though correct, we can see that this rule is not sufficient. It is possible to create many sentences with both the auxiliary have and a past participle that are not acceptable at all.

  1. *The man seen has the woman.
  2. *The mice have the cats seen.

From the first sentence you could draw the conclusion that the auxiliary must precede the past participle. The second sentence however shows that even that is not sufficient. We could say the auxiliary must be directly followed by the past participle, but that seems a bit too tight given the following, perfectly grammatical, sentence.

  1. The students have all seen the movie.

It is now your task to formulate a different, better rule than the one above. It should account for the cases 1,2 and 3 and any other you can think of. Choose one corpus (Brown or Penn) that you would like to use in your research. Use the filter to select only relevant sentences, this will mean you will have to be smart in choosing the tags for your search (bear in mind that have is not always an auxliary, for instance). Get a picture of what is and what isn't allowed when using the auxiliary have. As a final hint, you may pay attention to the notions of syntactical head and complement.

NB1 The corpora you may use do not seem to differentiate between past and passive participle. You may therefore take these two together as well and try to formulate, as closely as you can, the relation between past and passive participles. Also you may ignore the cases where it seems that the participles appear without any particle (auxiliaries are sometimes left away out of laziness: 'The stones (they have) found in the garden').

Brown corpus:

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Penn treebank:

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