Helping Verbs (with Examples)
Helping VerbsA 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
Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing TenseHere 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.)
Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing VoiceHere 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.)
Examples of Helping Verbs Expressing MoodHere 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.)
Examples of Modal Auxiliary VerbsModal 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)
- 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)
- We shall heal our wounds, collect our dead and continue fighting. (Founding father of the People's Republic of China Mao Zedong)
- 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 PhrasesA "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.
- 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)
- 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."
- 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.")