Helping Verbs (with Examples)

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Helping Verbs

A helping verb (also known as an auxiliary verb) is used with a main verb to help express the main verb's tense, mood, or voice.

The main helping verbs are "to be," "to have," and "to do." They appear in the following forms:
  • To Be: am, is, are, was, were, being, been, will be
  • To Have: has, have, had, having, will have
  • To Do: does, do, did, will do
helping verbs examples

There is another kind of helping verb called a modal auxiliary verb (or modal verb). The modal auxiliary verbs are "can," "could," "may," "might," "must," "ought to," "shall," "should," "will," and "would." The modal auxiliary verbs never change their forms.

Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing Tense

Here are some examples of helping verbs expressing tense. In these examples, the main verbs are in bold and the helping verbs are highlighted.
  • Peter was singing for an hour.
  • Peter is singing in the shower.
  • Peter will be singing tomorrow evening.
  • (In each of these examples, the helping verb "to be" helps to form the progressive tense, which is the tense used for ongoing actions.)
  • Bonzo had eaten the chicken before we could stop him.
  • Bonzo has eaten the chicken already.
  • Bonzo will have eaten it by then.
  • (In each of these examples, the helping verb "to have" helps to form the perfect tense, which is the tense used for expressing an action's completion.)
  • Clara had been running before her race.
  • Clara has been running every day for a month.
  • Clara will have been running for an hour at that point.
  • (In each of these examples, the helping verbs "have" and "been" help to form the perfect progressive tense, which is the tense used for expressing an ongoing action's completion.)
Read more about the tenses.

Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing Voice

Here are some examples of helping verbs expressing voice.
  • The chicken was eaten by Bonzo.
  • The carp are routinely stolen by visitors.
  • The wifi will be disconnected after 6 o'clock.
  • (In these examples, the auxiliary verb "to be" helps to form the passive voice. A verb is in the passive voice when its subject does not perform the action of the verb but has the action done to it.)
Read more the voice of a verb.

Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing Mood

Here are some examples of helping verbs being used to express mood.
  • Did she lose?
  • (Here, the helping verb "to do" is used to form the interrogative mood, i.e., to ask a question.)
  • Don't breathe out until I say.
  • (Here, the helping verb "to do" (in its negative form) is used to form the imperative mood, i.e., to give an order.)
Read more about the mood of a verb.

Examples of Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Modal auxiliary verbs combine with other verbs to express ideas such as necessity, possibility, intention, and ability. In these examples, the verb phrases are in bold, and the modal auxiliary verbs are highlighted.

Modal auxiliary verbs expressing necessity:
  • You must be the change you wish to see in the world. (Indian politician Mahatma Gandhi)
  • I don't say we all ought to misbehave, but we ought to look as if we could. (Actor Orson Welles)
  • The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk. (Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero)
Modal auxiliary verbs expressing possibility:
  • Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. (Sportsman John Wooden)
  • Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, and others make it happen. (Sportsman Michael Jordan)
Modal auxiliary verbs expressing intention:
  • We shall heal our wounds, collect our dead and continue fighting. (Founding father of the People's Republic of China Mao Zedong)
Modal auxiliary verbs expressing ability:
  • I'm impervious to charm. I can see through it. (Businesswoman Deborah Meaden)
  • Well, either side could win it, or it could be a draw. (Football manager Ron Atkinson)
  • (Sometimes, more than one sense is expressed. Here, "could" expresses both ability and possibility.)

Helping Verbs and Verb Phrases

A "verb phrase" is made up of the helping verb(s) and the main verb. In the examples below, the verb phrase is shaded with main verb in bold:
  • They have been drinking since breakfast.
  • Lee is fishing for mackerel.
Be aware that any adverbs which appear alongside or inside the verb phrase are not part of the verb phrase. For example:
  • They have been drinking heavily since breakfast.
  • (The adverb "heavily" is not part of the verb phrase.)
  • Lee is definitely fishing for mackerel.
  • (The adverb "definitely" is not part of the verb phrase.)

Why Should I Care about Helping Verbs?

Native English speakers can use helping verbs and modal auxiliary verbs without giving the grammar a second thought. Of course, that's only true if we're talking about working in English. If you're learning a foreign language, you need to learn how its speakers express tense, voice, and mood. A good starting point for understanding how they do it is understanding how we do it.

That aside, here are three noteworthy points related to helping verbs.

(Point 1) Don't write "could of," "should of," or "would of."

Never write "could of," "should of," or "would of." It's a serious writing mistake.

"Could've" is a contraction of "could have," "should've" is a contraction of "should have," and "would've" is a contraction of "would have."

(Point 2) Expand "can't" to "cannot" not "can not."

"Cannot" (one word) is the most common expansion of the contraction "can't."
  • You cannot open a book without learning something. (Chinese philosopher Confucius)
  • Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. (Sportsman John Wooden)
"Can't" can also be expanded to "can not" (i.e., two words), but this is less common and usually reserved for emphasis.
  • I cannot do it!
  • ("Can't" is usually expanded to "cannot.")
  • I can not do it!
  • (Expanding "can't" to two words is considered more emphatic.)

(Point 3) Use "can" for ability and "may" for permission.

"Can" is a modal auxiliary verb meaning "to be able to." "May" is a modal auxiliary verb meaning "to be permitted to."
  • She can do the splits.
  • (She has the ability to do the splits.)
  • May I have a quick word with the students?
  • (Am I permitted to have a quick word with the students?)
  • "Can I play outside, grandma?"
  • "You can, dear. You're just not allowed."
Nowadays, "can" is often used for permission, especially in an informal setting.
  • Can I have a biscuit, grandma?
  • "You can, dear. You're just not allowed one."
  • ("Can" is fine here, but, hey, it's still a grandma's job issue a "correction.")
Read more about today's leniency with "can" and "may."
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is tense? What is mood? What is voice? What are adverbs? The difference between can and may Using shall and will Glossary of grammatical terms