Learning how to use auxiliary verbs in English (do, don’t, doesn’t, etc.) is one of the trickiest aspects of the language. It’s not at all intuitive and it’s only used in very particular contexts. Misusing an auxiliary verb is a costly error, yet even high-level English students tend to commit it. In a best case scenario, making such an error would expose you as a foreign speaker, which inherently invites judgment. In a worst case scenario, you could communicate something that is the complete opposite of what you’re trying to say.
Fear not! Below is an exercise that will solve all of your auxiliary issues. And the best part about it is that all levels of English speakers from beginner all the way up to upper-intermediate can benefit from it. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Positive statement
First choose any positive statement that involves the to be verb (am, are, is). Say it in the first person. For example, “I am awake.” You can make the sentence as long and interesting or as short and sweet as you please.
Step 2: Negative statement
Now make that same sentence negative. For example, “I am not awake.” Notice that with the to be verb, to change a positive statement into a negative one, you must add the word not after the to be verb.
Step 3: Positive question
Now say the positive statement, but this time, in the form of a question. For example, “Am I awake?” Notice that to change a positive statement that uses the verb to be into a question, you must switch the subject and the verb to be.
Step 4: Negative question
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Now take that same statement, and make it into a negative question. For example, “Am I not awake?” Notice that with negative questions that use the verb to be, the subject and the to be verb are still switched. To indicate that the question is negative, we add the word not after the subject.
Step: 5: Assumption confirmation
Finally, the last step is arguably the most confusing. In English, if we assume something is true, and we are seeking confirmation of that assumption, we use a different structure, in which we make the auxiliary verb a negative contraction. For assumption confirmation questions in first person, we use the word aren’t. For example, if I think that I’m awake, but I’m not sure, I may ask someone, “Aren’t I awake?”
And there you have it. Positive statement, negative statement, positive question, negative question, assumption confirmation question. +, -, +?, -?, ACQ.
+: I am awake.
-: I am not awake.
+?: Am I awake?
-?: Am I not awake.
ACQ: Aren’t I awake?
Step 6: Time yourself
Now pull out your phone and activate your stopwatch. You may understand how the grammar works. But you don’t really know it until you can say it without having to think about it. As your time gets better, you will have to think less and less about the structure and eventually it will become completely natural for you. Try to challenge your classmates or friends and see if you can beat their time. You can run this exercise in your head as often as you like. Whenever you’re waiting in line or killing time, choose a sentence and see how fast you can run this exercise.
Step 7: Alternate perspective
Now repeat that same exercise, but with second person, third person, first person plural, and third person plural.
+: You are awake.
-: You are not awake.
+?: Are you awake?
-?: Are you not awake?
ACQ: Aren’t you awake?
+: He/she is awake.
-: He/she is not awake.
+?: Is he/she awake?
-?: Is he/she not awake?
ACQ: Isn’t he/she awake?
+: We are awake.
-: We are not awake.
+?: Are we awake?
-?: Are we not awake?
ACQ: Aren’t we awake?
+: They are awake.
-: They are not awake.
+?: Are they awake?
-?: Are they not awake?
ACQ: Aren’t they awake?
Step 8: To do
Now, try the same exercise, but this time with a statement without the verb to be that involves an action. For example, I walk to work every day. The action is to walk.
+: I walk to work every day.
-: I don’t walk to work every day.
+?: Do I walk to work every day?
-?: Do I not walk to work every day?
ACQ: Don’t I walk to work every day?
Notice how with sentences that involve action but do not have the to be verb, we add the word do for negative statements and questions. With questions, we switch the subject with the auxiliary, just like we did with the to be verbs.
Step 9: Alternate perspective
Now do it again with each other perspective like you did with the to be verb.
+: You walk to work.
-: You don’t walk to work.
+?: Do you walk to work?
-?: Do you not work to work?
ACQ: Don’t you walk to work?
+: She/he walks to work.
-: She/he doesn’t walk to work.
+?: Does she/he walk to school?
-?: Does she/he not walk to school?
ACQ: Doesn’t she/he walk to school?
+: We walk to work.
-: We don’t walk to work.
+?: Do we walk to work?
-?: Do we not walk to work?
ACQ: Don’t we walk to work?
+: They walk to work.
-: They don’t walk to work.
+?: Do they walk to work?
-?: Do they not walk to work?
ACQ: Don’t they walk to work?
Note 1: We add an s to the end of the verb for 3rd person singular positive statements. For example, “He walks to work.”
Note 2: Notice that for the third person negative statements and questions, the verb walk is not conjugated. That’s because when we use an auxiliary verb, that is the only verb that is conjugated in the sentence. For example, “He doesn’t walk to work.”
Remember to time yourself for each. At the beginning you should simply aim to beat your best time. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you a while. Even if it takes you five minutes, don’t worry. Just so long as you are getting better as you go, you have nothing to be concerned about. Little by little, you should eventually be able to do each of these exercises inside of ten seconds!
And that, my friends, is how you master the auxiliary verb in English. Let us know how it worked for you in the comments section below! 😉
Matt Dancis writes for Language Trainers, a language tutoring company that teaches any language, anytime, anywhere. It has native speaking instructors throughout the world who give customizable private or small group classes either in person or on Skype. Take one of their free language level tests. Matt is from Philadelphia and has spent his past several years living in Argentina and Colombia, splitting his time between writing and teaching English. To contact Matt with any questions, email him at email@example.com.