Wikipedia says if a verb shows all or some of the following properties it is an auxiliary verb

  • They can participate in what is called subject–auxiliary inversion, i.e. they can swap places with the subject of the clause, to form questions and for certain other purposes. For example, inversion of subject and verb is possible in the sentence They can sing (becoming Can they sing?); but it is not possible in They like to sing – it is not correct to say *Like they to sing? (instead do-support is required: Do they like to sing?)
  • They undergo negation by the addition of not after them. For example, one can say They cannot sing, but not *They like not to sing (again do-support is required: They don't like...)
  • Other distinct features of verbs in this group include their ability to introduce verb phrase ellipsis (I can sing can be shortened to I can in appropriate contexts, whereas I like to sing cannot be shortened to I like), and the positioning of certain adverbs directly after them (compare I can often sing with I often like to sing).

and it adds that "be" (as infinitive, imperative and subjunctive) is an auxiliary verb. can you say an example that imperative "be" follows at least on of the above criteria?

  • I believe the only case where "be" (not am, is, are, was, were) can show one of those features you mention (specifically, inversion) is when it functions as subjunctive, in sentences like: I love movies, be they colour or black and white (= no matter whether they are colour or black and white).
    – Gustavson
    Apr 2, 2017 at 22:51

1 Answer 1


In almost all circumstances BE has the auxiliary 'NICE' properties you mention (negation, inversion, code, emphasis).

However, BE has one particular use in which it loses some of these properties and behaves like an ordinary lexical verb: when instead of designating a more-or-less permanent state—a quality or identity—it designates temporary behavior.

In indicative sentences, BE has this sense when it is cast in the progressive construction.

Jill is being very nice tonight.
John was being a jerk, as usual.

Stative verbs—a category which includes the auxiliaries—are not ordinarily cast in the progressive, so this is a signal that BE being is recategorized as a lexical verb (specifically, an 'activity' verb). This construction of course employs BE twice, first as an auxiliary and second as a lexical, and in most situations the auxiliary piece, BE, is retained and exhibits the ordinary auxiliary properties.

But auxiliaries cannot be cast in the imperative voice. Consequently when we want to tell someone how to behave we can't use the auxiliary + being; we have to treat this BE as an ordinary lexical verb:

Be nice!

And when we cast this in the negative, telling someone how not to behave, it requires do support:

Don't be such a jerk.

  • Perhaps we should tell tuxestan that the article in question clearly says: "Non-indicative and non-finite forms of the same verbs (when performing the same functions) are usually described as auxiliaries too, even though all or most of the distinctive syntactical properties do not apply to them specifically."(bolds mine) The only case where non-finite "be" shows one of the NICE features is, I think, subjunctive constructions like "be it A or B". However, I agree with you that "be" there (as in your examples with imperative) is a copulative, lexical verb, not an auxiliary.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 3, 2017 at 0:23
  • @Gustavson (1) I personally am inclined to regard the so-called 'present subjunctive' be as an instance of the infinitive/imperative; it is used today only in mandatives--including your example, where it is equivalent to let it be--and there's no evident reason why it should be treated as a finite verb in PDE. (2) The current orthodoxy in fact holds that the copular use is 'auxiliary', too: 'auxiliary' has been redefined to mean essentially 'exhibits the NICE properties', and is not restricted to catenating constructions. Apr 3, 2017 at 1:48
  • Thank you for your feedback. Had I heard this before, I could have answered to Edwin Ashworth here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/378008/to-do-or-to-have/… How I'd like to get back to him with this information you kindly provided me with, which is in line with what I always believed and taught my students.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 3, 2017 at 10:25
  • In fact, I will let him know, lest he believes his is the ultimate truth.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 3, 2017 at 10:33
  • Nearly 4 years late!!!, but I did a little research on imperatives, and it seems that imperative "be", as in "Don't be afraid". is in fact an auxiliary that by exception requires do support in negatives. The same applies with "have" imperatives, as in "Don't have eaten all the pizza by the time I get back".
    – BillJ
    Jan 26, 2021 at 15:43

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