Module 3, Verbs: Types, Tenses, and Moods, Lesson 4:

Helping Verbs


Definition: All sentences need at least one main verb; however, certain tenses, sentence structures, and ideas require a helping verb (also called an auxiliary verb), which assists the main verb to form a complete thought. Without helping verbs, certain ideas would be impossible to express, and our speech and writing would be dull and incomplete. Remove the helping verb, and you might end up sounding like a caveman (or woman)! Try removing the helping verb from any of the examples in this lesson and you'll get the idea.

Verb Phrases

Helping verbs and main verbs combine to form verb phrases. The main verb is always the last verb in the phrase.

Helping Verb + Main Verb = Verb Phrase

Common Helping Verbs

Below you will learn about the most common helping verbs and how they're used. You'll notice that many helping verbs are used in specific verb tenses. The tense of a verb tells us the time period when an action occurs, such as in the present, past, or future. You'll learn more about this concept in Lesson 8.

To be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
  • Progressive Tenses
    Earlier, you learned that to be is a linking verb, but in many situations, it's a helping verb. For example, it's used in the progressive tenses, which combine the forms of to be with verbs ending in -ing.

    Present Progressive:
    I am writing this sentence.
    am + writing = verb phrase

    Past Progressive:
    It was raining, so we couldn't play outside.
    was + raining = verb phrase

  • Passive Voice
    The verb to be is also used in the passive voice, which combines the forms of to be with verbs ending in -ed or -en. These verbs are called participles.

    Make sure all your assignments are completed by Thursday.
    are + completed = verb phrase

    This sentence was written.
    was + written = verb phrase

    Sometimes the participle will have a different ending instead of -ed or -en, but you will learn about this concept in a later lesson.
To have: have, has, had, having
  • Perfect Tenses
    The verb to have combines with verbs ending in -ed and -en to form the perfect tenses. (They're not really "perfect" tenses; that's just their name.)

    Present Perfect:
    It has rained so many days in a row that I can't remember the last time the sun was out!
    has + rained = verb phrase

    Past Perfect:
    We didn't realize the pickpocket had stolen our wallets until she was already long gone.
    had + stolen = verb phrase

To do: do, does, did
  • Questions
    Unlike to be and to have, to do isn't used as part of any particular verb tense—but it still has several important jobs. One of them is to form questions. You'll notice that in questions, a noun or pronoun splits the verb phrase.

    Do you know what time it is?
    do + know = verb phrase
    you = pronoun
  • Negative Statements
    To do also helps to form not statements, which are called negative statements. In this type of sentence, the word not splits the verb phrase.

    I do not know what time it is because I lost my cell phone.
    do + know = verb phrase
    not = adverb
    Remember that don't, doesn't, and didn't are contractions for do not, does not, and did not. The word not, which is an adverb, is not part of the helping verb.
  • Emphasis
    Finally, you can use to do as an emphatic verb to help clarify or add intensity to the main verb.

    Yes, I do know your Uncle Joe.

    There may have been confusion about whether you know Uncle Joe or not. The helping verb do is used to make it crystal clear that you know him.

    I did buy milk yesterday.

    Here, to do is in the past tense. The person making the statement is clarifying that he or she already bought milk.

    There is no future emphatic because you can't emphasize something that hasn't happened yet.
Modals (also called modal auxiliaries): can, could, may, might, shall, will, would, should, must

These verbs express ability, possibility, permission, intention, obligation, and necessity.

I can play basketball.
I am able to do it.

I could play basketball.
It is a possibility that I will be able to.

I may play basketball.
This can mean two things: either I have permission to play, or it is a possibility that I will play.

I might play basketball.
It is a possibility. You can use might instead of may to suggest that the possibility is more remote or uncertain.

I shall play basketball.
Shall is more common in British English and is used instead of will for the first person (I shall, you will). It is used to express future actions.

I will play basketall.
It is my intention in the future.

I would play basketball.
It is possible that I'll play under certain conditions.

I should play basketball.
I have an obligation to do it.

I must play basketball.
It is a necessity.

Common Challenges with Helping Verbs

Challenge 1: Questions

Watch out for questions. Often, the subject of the question is located between the helping verb and the main verb.

Are you coming to my party?
are + coming = verb phrase
you = pronoun

Do you prefer chocolate cake or white cake?
do + prefer = verb phrase
you = pronoun

Often, if you rearrange all the words in a question to form a declarative sentence, it is easier to find the verb phrase.
Are you coming to my party?
You are coming to my party.
Challenge 2: Adverbs

Sometimes the verb phrase can be interrupted by an adverb. Be careful not to include the adverb in the verb phrase. Only words on the "Approved List of Helping Verbs" can be helping verbs.

You are not coming to my party.
are + coming = verb phrase
not = adverb

I can definitely go to your party.
can + go = verb phrase
definitely = adverb

Approved List of Helping Verbs
to be to have to do Modals

Practice What You've Learned

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Part 1

Click on all the words in the verb phrase in each sentence.
Tomorrow we will be playing soccer.
You should have cleaned your room.
Sam did do the dishes.
Should you be eating that much candy?
Early scientists must have wondered about the strange animals at the bottom of the ocean.
A car must have driven here on the beach.
St. Augustine, Florida would have been a hot place to live in the 1600s.
Have you been doing your homework?
That satellite rocket should have launched by now.
My four canaries could have flown away.

Part 2

Click on all the helping verbs only in each sentence.
You should have been practicing your free throws before the last game.
We might be seeing the pyramids on our trip to Egypt.
That picture may have been cut out of a medieval manuscript.
That crash must have been caused by texting while driving.
We will not be shopping at the mall on Black Friday.
Can you help me find my lost keys?
We would have been here on time if Sam hadn't broken his ankle.
My aunt and uncle will soon be visiting us for the summer.
In 2013 Hannukah and Thanksgiving were celebrated on the same day.
I am sure you did do your homework, but where is it?