What are Helping Verbs? – Definition & Examples

In this lesson, we will look at helping, or auxiliary, verbs and their roles in sentences. As the name indicates, helping verbs assist in making verbs complete, and they help with sentence meaning.

Definition of Helping Verbs

Helping verbs are verbs that come before the main verb, or the verb describing the action of the sentence. Helping verbs do just what they sound like – they help verbs by making them complete. More specifically, helping verbs can help a verb to tell us exactly when something occurred in time and refine the meaning of a sentence by setting the mood or tone.

Before we continue with examples, here is a list of the helping verbs in the English language:

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has could should does
will have had might
shall did can must
ought to would might do
am is are was
were be being been

Modal auxiliaries, or modal helping verbs, don’t change according to the subject. For instance, in the sentence ‘They can go to the concert,’ we could easily switch the word ‘they’ for ‘he’ and the helping verb ‘can’ still works.

How Helping Verbs Work

In this section, we are going to see how helping verbs are used in sentences. Let’s take the helping verbs ‘does’ and ‘did.’ See how the sentence meanings differ according to the helping verb choices:

Mary does complete her homework.

Mary did complete her homework.

In the first sentence, we see that Mary does, on a regular basis, complete her homework, but in the second sentence, the meaning changes. Mary did complete her homework. The word ‘did’ gives us the idea that Mary completed her homework recently.

Let’s look at another example:

Jim must complete two courses before he graduates.

Jim might complete two courses before he graduates.

There is a vast difference between the meaning of these two sentences above simply based upon the choice of either using the helping verb ‘might’ or ‘must.’ One indicates that Jim has to complete the courses, while the other says completing the courses is optional and may or may not happen.

‘To Be’ Helping Verbs

‘To be’ verbs – am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been – can either be linking verbs or helping verbs, but there is a difference. Let’s look at a few examples:

I am going to the store.

In this sentence, ‘am’ is a helping verb, and the complete verb in the sentence is ‘am going.’ Now contrast this sentence with this one:

I am glad.

In this sentence, the word ‘am’ acts as a linking verb, ‘linking’ the subject ‘I’ to the predicate adjective ‘glad.’

Another example of using ‘am’ as a linking verb would be to say:

I am Julie.

In this case, ‘am’ is linking the subject ‘I’ to the predicate noun ‘Julie.’

How Helping Verbs Define Tense

Helping verbs can be broken down into four sections, and these sections help us grasp the tense in a sentence:

  • Present perfect
  • Past perfect
  • Present progressive
  • Past progressive

Here are some samples of each:

1. I have sipped three cups of coffee. (Present perfect, or ‘have’ plus the verb)

2. John had studied all night for the test. (Past perfect, or ‘had’ plus the verb)

3. Sal is going on a cruise to Alaska this summer. (Present progressive, or ‘am,’ ‘is’, and ‘are’ plus the verb)

4. The students were yelling for the cop car to stop. (Past progressive, or ‘was’ and ‘were’ plus the verb)

Lesson Summary

Helping verbs make verbs more specific in sentences by allowing us to see exactly when something happens. Helping verbs allow for degrees of meaning in sentences. Without them, accurate communication would definitely be more difficult.

Modal auxiliaries, or modal helping verbs, don’t change according to the subject. To be verbs – am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been – can either be linking verbs or helping verbs. Helping verbs can be broken down into four sections, and these sections help us grasp the tense in a sentence:

  • Present perfect
  • Past perfect
  • Present progressive
  • Past progressive

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • State the role of a helping verb and list some examples
  • Explain how helping verbs can clarify the verb tense of a sentence
  • Identify helping verbs in a sentence
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