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Auxiliary Verbs in Everyday Speech

Auxiliary Verbs in Everyday Speech
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Imagine someone asks you if you can speak English.

You could say:

I can speak English.

Or you could say:

I can’t speak English.

In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore the connection between grammar and speaking. You will learn about small details in these two statements that can teach you a lot about American English. In particular, you will learn about how auxiliary verbs are used in everyday speech.

But first, let’s start with a few important terms and ideas.


In English, we generally divide words into one of two types – content words and function words. Content words include nouns, adjectives, and verbs. These words are often stressed – meaning said louder or in a higher pitch – in everyday speech.

Function words are words that have a grammatical purpose. Function words include pronouns, prepositions, determiners, and auxiliary verbs. These words are less central to expressing exact meaning. For this reason, they are generally not stressed in everyday speaking.* There are important exceptions, however, as we will see.

When are auxiliary verbs stressed?

You might be asking yourself the following question: What is the connection between word stress, auxiliary verbs, and the example sentences from the beginning of this report?

The answer is this: Although auxiliary verbs are generally not stressed in their positive form, they are often stressed in their negative form. The negative form expresses denial, disagreement, inability, or refusal.

Think back to the example you heard at the beginning of this report:

I can speak English.

Note that the content words such as speak and English are stressed.

Note that the auxiliary verb can is not stressed. It is in its so-called “weak form.”

The normal form sounds like this: can.

The weak form sounds like this: can.

The difference is in the vowel sound.

Now listen to our other example sentence:

I can’t speak English.

This has the negative form of can, can’t, which is short for cannot. Our statement could have been:

I cannot speak English.

Note that in both sentences with the negative auxiliary – can't or cannot – there is stress on the auxiliary verb. Let’s listen again to our affirmative sentence with the unstressed auxiliary, and our negative sentence with the stressed auxiliary.

I can speak English.

I can’t speak English.

Closing Thoughts

The general idea in today’s report is that Americans generally stress auxiliary verbs in their negative forms. They generally do not stress auxiliary verbs when they are in their positive forms.

This idea holds for all kinds of auxiliary verbs – could, should, would, and so on.

The next time you listen to Americans speak, pay careful attention to how they use auxiliary verbs – both in negative and positive forms. With time and careful study, you will become much more confident in how you use and pronounce auxiliary verbs.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.

*You can read more about function words in our recent report, Function Words in Everyday Speech.


Words in This Story

auxiliary verb – n. grammar: a verb (such as have, be, may, do, shall, will, can, or must) that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question, etc.

determiner – n. grammar: a word (such as “a,” “the,” “some,” “any,” “my,” or “your”) that comes before a noun and is used to show which thing is being referred to

exception – n. someone or something that is different from others : someone or something that is not included

pronounce – v. to make the sound of (a word or letter) with your voice