NICE Properties of Auxiliary Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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NICE is an acronym for the four syntactic characteristics that distinguish auxiliary verbs from lexical verbs in English grammar: negation, inversion, code, emphasis. (Each of these properties is discussed below.) Also called NICE constructions.

The NICE properties were identified as such by linguist Rodney Huddleston in the article "Some Theoretical Issues in the Description of the English Verb" (Lingua, 1976).

Examples and Observations

  • "Auxiliaries differ very strikingly from lexical verbs in their syntactic behaviour. In the first place, there are four non-canonical constructions that are found with auxiliary verbs, but not with lexical verbs. This is illustrated by the contrast between auxiliary have and lexical see in [3], where [i] represents the canonical structure in which both are allowed, and [ii-v] the special constructions that are restricted to auxiliaries:
    [3ia] He has seen it.
    [3ib] He saw it.
    [3iia] He has not seen it.
    [3iib] *He saw not it. [Negation]
    [3iiia] Has he seen it?
    [3iiib] * Saw he it? [Inversion]
    [3iva] He has seen it and I have too.
    [3ivb] *He saw it and I saw too. [Code]
    [3va] They don't think he' s seen it but he has seen it.
    [3vb] *They don't think he saw it but he saw it. [Emphasis]
    "The short labels for the constructions illustrated here are 'Negation,' 'Inversion,' 'Code,' and 'Emphasis,' and the initial letters of these give rise to the acronym NICE. We will need to refer to them frequently in what follows, so it will be convenient to call them the NICE constructions." (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002
  • "NICE properties. A mnemonic for the four properties which distinguish auxiliary verbs from other verbs, as follows:
    1. Auxiliaries alone can be negated: She doesn't smoke; She wouldn't smoke; She's not smoking; but not *She smokes not.
    2. Auxiliaries alone can be inverted: Is she smoking?; Does she smoke?; May she smoke?; but not *Smokes she?
    3. Auxiliaries alone exhibit code, the ability to allow a following verb phrase to be deleted: Will she take the job?; I think she should, and she probably will, but Mike thinks she can't.
    4. Auxiliaries alone can be emphasized: She DOES smoke; She MUSTN'T smoke; She CAN smoke; She IS smoking." (R.L. Trask, Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000)


  • "First, there is negation. Had better and might as well are clearly operators since they form their negatives by adding not and not by any means of do-support. Note, though, that not is added at the end of the whole expression and not immediately after the verb:
    (1a) You had better not eat anything.
    (1b) ? You had not better eat anything.
    (1c) ? You hadn't better eat anything.
    (2a) I might as well not have gone.
    (2b) *I might not as well have gone.
    (2c) *I mightn't as well have gone.
    I have asterisked (2b) and (2c) but only put a question mark against (1b) and (1c). This is partly because it appears that (1c) is to be heard in some dialects of English . . . and partly because two syntactically different types of negation are involved in (1) and (2). Following Huddleston... ., it is clear that (1a) is an example of clausal negation, i.e. the entire clause is syntactically negative, whereas (2a) is a case of subclausal negation, i.e. syntactically negation affects only a constituent within the clause (here the embedded complement clause) and not the clause as a whole...
    "This lack of fit between the semantic scope of negation and the syntactic type of negation in the case of had better is a feature of modals expressing constraint as opposed to freedom. It applies to necessity/obligation verbs like must, should and ought..." (Keith Mitchell, "Had Better and Might As Well: On the Margins of Modality?" Modality in Contemporary English, ed. by Roberta Facchinetti, Manfred Krug, and Frank Palmer. Mouton de Gruyter, 2003)


  • "A second important characteristic of primary verbs is that they readily undergo inversion in interrogative (question) constructions. That is, the primary verb moves to pre-subject position. Inversion applies to both yes-no questions and wh- questions:
    Yes-No Question
    a. Is Min Hee sitting over there?
    b. Has Gilbert understood this?
    Wh- Question
    c. Where is Min Hee going to sit?
    d. What has Gilbert understood? [L]exical verbs require do-insertion to form a question: Yes-No Question
    a. *Speaks Keun Bae any other languages?
    b. Does Keun Bae speak any other languages?
    Wh- Question
    c. * What languages speaks Keun Bae?
    d. What languages does Keun Bae speak?" (Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Information Age, 2010)


  • "In constructions that 'stand for' or 'code' a previously mentioned verb phrase, the first auxiliary is repeated (and inverted with the Subject). The ungrammatical examples [marked by asterisks] illustrate the fact that lexical main verbs do not have this property: TAG QUESTIONS
    She should not eat kimchi, should she?
    * She should not eat kimchi, eat she?
    * She eats kimchi, eats not she?
    The vase was broken by the workers, wasn't it?
    * The workers broke the vase, broken't they?
    I should see the doctor, and so should she.
    * I saw the doctor, and so saw she.
    Who should eat kimchi? She should.
    Who ate kimchi? * She ate.
    We were eating kimchi, and so was she.
    * We eat kimchi and so eats she. Copular be follows the pattern of auxiliaries, and not lexical verbs."
    (Thomas E. Payne, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2011)


  • "The 'E' in NICE refers to prosodic emphasis (i.e. the force with which something is uttered), indicated by [italics] in the following examples: - The agents will book the tickets.
    - A thick fog has descended on the city.
    - The teacher is preparing an outdoor lesson.
    - The crook was apprehended.
    - He did agree! Lexical verbs do not allow such emphasis. For example, if I say Jim didn't watch television last night, it would not be possible for someone else to say Jim watched television last night with heavy stress on the verb watched. Instead, they would say Jim did watch television last night.
    "The lexical verbs be and have . . . also conform to the NICE properties, but we will not regard them as auxiliary verbs. The reason is that they can occur on their own in clauses, whereas auxiliaries can't." (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "NICE Properties of Auxiliary Verbs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). NICE Properties of Auxiliary Verbs. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "NICE Properties of Auxiliary Verbs." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).