Word in Language (14): Auxiliary Verbs

We live in the white space of eternity, but we cling to the line of time. It is extraordinary that the word TIME contains DIE (phonetic pair d-t, addition of m), but if we take a couple of steps in the alphabet it also gives LIVE (alphabetical pairs l-m, t-v). We have seen how it also contains MEET and DENY – this life on earth is our chance to meet Christ or to deny him, it is as simple as that. This is the purpose of life – do we choose to count down from the ego, I, to God, O, or do we prefer to attend to our own self-interest and to amass possessions by counting up from the ego, I? Once you start counting up, there will be no end, and we have seen how the English alphabet does this – it goes from the letter A to I to Z (1 to 2), it starts to count up, which may be seen as signifying a Western rational way of thinking, counting the cost, whereas the Greek alphabet, which may be taken to signify a spiritual way of thinking, a spontaneous response, counts down, it goes from the letter A to I to O (1 to 0, or omega).


This is very telling. We somehow have to escape the line that is represented by the ego, I, or by the timeline. LINE is close to MINE (alphabetical pair l-m) – when we draw a line, we are limiting ourselves, laying claim to possession, fencing ourselves in. We may find that the LINE leaves us ALONE, whereas in fact we are ALL ONE, and the one we have in common is God.


We see our life on earth in terms of the tenses: present, past and future. How much time do we spend in the present? Perhaps not very much, we are always thinking about events in the past or worrying about the future.


An example of the present tense is ‘I live in London’ or ‘I like to visit Hyde Park on a Tuesday’. It is used to talk about routines, actions or states that we consider to be fixed.


If we want to ask a question or to make a negative in the present, we have to use what is called an auxiliary verb – a verb that ‘helps’ us to ask the question or to make the negative – and the auxiliary verb for the present is ‘do’: ‘Where do you live?’ ‘I don’t like going out in the dark.’ We cannot ask a question or make a negative without the auxiliary ‘do’, or we will sound a little foreign: ‘Where you live?’ ‘I not like going out in the dark.’


Auxiliaries are a feature of the English language. Other languages like Ancient Greek and Bulgarian have little particles that enable the hearer to understand that what is coming is not a statement of fact, but a question: ‘ara’ in Greek, ‘li’ in Bulgarian. Languages like Spanish use intonation. ‘You live in Madrid?’ with a rising intonation informs the hearer that this is a question. I’m not telling you, I’m asking. But English has need of auxiliaries.


So it is in the past, and the auxiliary is the same: ‘I went to school in Clapham.’ ‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘I didn’t like it very much.’


So ‘do’ is the first auxiliary. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Do you often come here?’ ‘Don’t talk to me like that!’


The auxiliary for the future is ‘will’. This little word expresses intention or a prediction: ‘I will come and help you.’ ‘I think it will rain at the weekend.’ ‘Will you tell me what it is?’ Whereas the auxiliaries in the present and past – ‘do’ and ‘did’ – are only used to ask questions or to make the negative, in the future the auxiliary must also be used in positive statements – precisely to signify that it is the future: ‘I come to lunch on Tuesdays, but next week I will come on Wednesday.’


We have seen how language encourages us to think in terms of the collective, not in terms of the individual, and the future provides us with a wonderful example because if we contract ‘I’ and ‘will’ we get ‘I’ll’ – this is a way of talking about plans in the singular – whereas if we contract ‘we’ and ‘will’ and think about the future in terms of the plural, we get ‘we’ll’.


Language appears to be telling us something: ‘I’ll’ and ‘we’ll’. I’LL and WE’LL. Take away the apostrophe that indicates a contraction and you have ILL and WELL. Isn’t this language telling us to think in terms of the plural? We might also notice that ME becomes WE when we turn the letter M upside down (physical pair m-w). And what is the plural of ‘you’ (think not how the word is written, but how it sounds)? Why, ‘us’ of course!


There is an aspect – the perfect – that we can apply to the tenses we have talked about, the present, the past and the future. This perfect aspect has the amazing ability to connect the tenses, to join them together, but our emphasis is still very much on the line.


For example, imagine that I started to live in London in the year 2000. It is now 2020, and I still live in London. You have a past – I moved to London in 2000 – and a present – I live in London now. What if you want to join them together? You can only do this by using the perfect, the auxiliary for which is ‘have’: ‘I have lived in London for twenty years.’


Imagine a point in the future: when you get home. I want to say that between now and the point in time when you get home, that is between the present and the future, I am planning to finish baking a cake. I will say, ‘By the time you get home, I will have baked a cake.’ There is the perfect again, by means of the auxiliary ‘have’, and it connects two points along the line, the past and the present, the present and the future, even the past and a point further back in time: ‘When you came to visit me, I had already put the things away.’ Before that point in time when you turned up, I had performed this other action, between the past and a point further back in time (when I got home from the office, for example).


Well, after that short lesson in grammar, we are equipped to say that the auxiliaries that cover the timeline are ‘do’, ‘will’ and ‘have’.


But doesn’t this tell us something about how we approach time, our lives on earth? Because the first auxiliary, ‘do’, refers to activity – we must always be busy. The second auxiliary, ‘will’, refers to intention – what I want. And the third auxiliary, ‘have’, refers to possession – how much I have. Couldn’t this be said somehow to sum up our approach to life: what I do, what I will and what I have?


This is because we are clinging to the timeline. We are like vines on an arbour or shellfish on a submerged pillar. We cling to what we know. And what we know is what we can see in front of us, what we can lay our hands on. But there is so much more. There is the enormity of space, to start with. There is also the enormity of ourselves – isn’t the kingdom of heaven within us? There is the enormity of our hearts, of our reaching out to one another, of the many examples of endurance and selflessness that humanity has shown. There is the moment when, albeit we are busy or tired, we take time out to focus on the other’s need. We shift away from the timeline, we take a step over the abyss. We enter the white space of the whiteboard. We realize that the battle has already been won and we are picking up the pieces. We step outside of time and into the light. We cease – for a moment – to linger on the past or to harbour concerns about the future. They are always only moments – the past and future quickly reclaim their place, like a tide coming in. But there are moments when we can separate ourselves from the timeline and enter eternity. We are in eternity. Now.


And what is the fourth auxiliary that is used to represent the continuous aspect, to talk about the moment? It is ‘be’. ‘Where are you at the moment?’ ‘I am sitting in the garden.’ Enjoying life, focused on the here and now, amazed by the wonder of it all. Isn’t this life? Amazement at the other, amazement at ourselves. Little coins that jingle in our pockets. Coins that are like suns, shimmering in the light.


Faith is stepping off the line. I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time, I’m too busy, I can’t do it for you, otherwise…


Faith is being quiet. In the moment, when we prise the timeline open and expand it, blow a little air into the bag.


When we expand the moment, we use ‘be’ (a word that we have seen is connected to ‘we’ and is contained in both ‘die’ and ‘live’). ‘I was reading a book when you arrived’ (I was unaware of time). ‘We will be waiting for you when the train arrives’ (the train will pull up alongside the platform, but we will already be out of time – waiting for you). ‘Be’ takes us out of time – it is used for actions that may be temporary (‘I am living in London at the moment, but next month I may not be’), continuous (‘we were walking alongside the river when it happened’) or repeated (‘I have been trying to get hold of you for ages’). It takes us away from the apparent security of our own efforts (‘do’), our own wills (‘will’) and our own possessions (‘have’).


There is so much noise in the world, but the truth is that the silence is much greater. There are so many words on this page, but the truth is that the white space is far greater. There is so much substance to our bodies, but the truth is that we are peppered with holes and invaded by space.


So it is with time. Time – the cross (†), I and me – is in eternity. It is the only place it can be. At some point, the teacher of English will come along and rub out the timeline. And then our preoccupations, our money and possessions, our frustrated wills, will count for nothing. All that will count is who we have allowed ourselves to be.


Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

3 thoughts on “Word in Language (14): Auxiliary Verbs

    1. Dear Esther, thank you for your comment. I’m glad it made sense! There are certainly some amazing things in language. Sometimes we just have to wait to see them. I am reading Gerard Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy at the moment, and he certainly knew how to do that, since he spent hours in the garden of their villa on Corfu observing nature! All best wishes, Jonathan


  1. Pingback: Word in Language (21): English Course (0) – Stones Of Ithaca

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