What Are Helping Verbs? List And Examples

Did you know that you can own a leopard in some states? It is true and has been for a while! It might sound fun to own a big cat but you may want to think twice about it. After all, you would need a lot of money and a lot of animal knowledge to properly care for one. To keep the leopards happy, we should let them roam free in the wild or live in a zoo where experts can take care of them.

In our discussion about leopards, we used a verb in every sentence. As you may know, a verb is a word that we use to describe actions and states of being. While there are many types of verbs that we can use in a sentence or clause, the italicized words above are members of a particularly helpful kind of verb called a helping verb or an auxiliary verb.

What is a helping or auxiliary verb?

A helping verb (also known as an auxiliary verb, with auxiliary coming from a Latin root meaning “helping”) is “a word used in construction with and preceding certain forms of other verbs, as infinitives or participles, to express distinctions of tense, aspect, mood, etc.”

So what does this mean? To simplify our definition a bit, a helping verb works together with the main verb to form a verb phrase that has a certain tense, mood, voice, or other grammatical aspect. Not every sentence or clause uses a verb phrase, so you can easily have a sentence without helping verbs. For example, the sentence Ducks quack uses a verb by itself to say what ducks do. However, the sentence The ducks have been quacking all morning uses a verb phrase (have been quacking) in order to form the present perfect continuous verb tense. We will exclusively use the term helping verb here, but in general usage the names helping verb and auxiliary verb can be used interchangeably.

When we use helping verbs, we place them in front of the main verb of the sentence. The main verb is the final verb in a verb phrase that actually says what action something is doing or describes a state of being. For example, in the sentence We might leave tomorrow, the main verb is leave and the helping verb is might.

There aren’t that many helping verbs, but the roster of helping verbs includes some of the most commonly used words in English. These include:

 

  • The verb be and its forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being
  • The verb have and its forms: have, has, had, having
  • The verb do and its forms: do, does, did
  • can
  • could
  • might
  • may
  • must
  • ought to
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

Let’s look closer at these helping verbs to figure out why we actually use them.

The verb be

As a helping verb, the verb be is used with a main verb and, potentially, other helping verbs to form the continuous and perfect continuous verb tenses:

 

The verb be can also be used as a helping verb with the passive voice. For example,

 

  • Joey was rescued by a firefighter.

It is important to remember that the verb be can also be used by itself in a sentence. If it is, it acts as a linking verb and not a helping verb. For example, Mateo is a police officer.

The verb have

As a helping verb, have (and its forms) is mainly used to form the perfect and perfect continuous verb tenses. You can see examples of the perfect continuous tenses above. Here are examples of have used as a helping verb to form the perfect tenses:

 

Just like the verb be, have can also be used alone in a sentence to refer to ownership. If it is used this way, it is a stative verb and not a helping verb: Fish have gills.

Get a close-up look at how to use this helping verb correctly with our article on has vs. have!

The verb do

In grammar, mood (from a variant of the word mode) is a category that shows if a verb is expressing fact (known as indicative mood), command (imperative mood), question (interrogative mood), wish (optative mood), or conditionality (subjunctive mood). For example, the indicative mood is used to state facts as in Mice like cheese, and the imperative mood is used to give commands as in Bring me that book. In practice, modal verbs are used to alter the meaning of a sentence or clause in some way. The following two sentences have different meanings:

 

  • Do cats chase mice? (Interrogative mood)
  • Do not touch the glass! (Imperative mood)

As with the other two main helping verbs, do can also be used alone in a sentence, usually as an action verb. For example, The sergeant watched as the recruits did push-ups.

The modal auxiliary verbs

The subgroup of auxiliary verbs known as modal auxiliary verbs, or modal verbs, include words such as can, could, should, might, must, may, will, and shall. Generally speaking, these words are used as helping verbs to establish the mood of a verb. In practice, this includes sentences that indicate:

 

  • Possibility: It might rain tomorrow. She may ask me to dance.
  • Ability: Parrots can imitate human speech. He could beat anyone in a race.
  • Necessity: You must clean your room. According to the law, we should report this crime to the police.
  • Intention: We will buy more clothes if we can afford them. Malia said she shall visit her parents next month.

Helping verb examples

The following sentences all have examples of helping verbs. Keep in mind that a word is only a helping verb if it is not the main verb in a sentence. It is also possible to use more than one helping verb in a single verb phrase and to make a verb phrase negative by using the word not or a contraction.

 

  • Jack and Jill were walking up a hill.
  • The workers had been building the garage all morning.
  • I heard that some insects can breathe underwater.
  • Does she know that the store opens in an hour?
  • Luckily, we had locked the door, so the robbers couldn’t enter the house.

Helping verbs make all the difference for verb tenses. How familiar are you with all of the tenses though? Let’s find out.

Helping verb rules & best practices

The most important thing to remember about helping verbs is that they are not the main verb of a sentence. As their name suggests, they help the main verb in a sentence by expressing a mood, tense, voice etc. When we use helping verbs in English, we typically put them in front of the main verb in a verb phrase.

Generally speaking, we typically do not use more than three helping verbs in a single verb phrase. For example, we would say I may have been eating at that time but we wouldn’t say I could may have been eating at that time.

Although they are not used as the main verb, it is possible for a linking verb to be used alone in a sentence or clause if the main verb has been omitted. Here are some examples:

 

  • Madeline didn’t buy any gifts, but Elijah did.
  • I can’t whistle, but my sister can.
  • We never recycle even though we know that we really should.
  • Ben didn’t know the answer, but Abby might.
  • Cats can climb trees and monkeys can, too.

It is important to note that in each of the above sentences, it is easy to tell which verb was omitted in the sentence. When using a linking verb alone in a sentence, it is crucial that a listener or reader understands the meaning of what you are trying to say. It is a good idea to not omit the main verb from a sentence if a sentence is unclear or doesn’t make sense without it.

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