Helping Verbs: The Main Verb’s Assistant

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What are they?

Helping verbs are the helping hand of the verb family. Think of them like an assistant. They provide extra meaning to the main verb in a sentence, and together, the two form a verb phrase. A verb phrase is still viewed as a singular part of speech: a verb.

Where do they appear in a sentence?

A helping verb may appear immediately preceding the main verb, or it may appear with a word separating it from the main verb, such as “not” or “you.” When an additional word is used, the word is part of the verb phrase even though it is not a verb when it is used outside the verb phrase.

How are they recognized?

Unlike main verbs, where trying to think of an entire list is mentally draining and impossible, helping verbs consist of only 23 words, which are broken into primary and modal categories:


  • am, are, is, was, were
  • be, being, been
  • has, have, had
  • do, does, did


  • will, shall, should, would
  • can, could
  • may, might, must

What is the difference between primary and modal ones?

The main difference between the two types is the ability to serve as the only verb in a sentence. Primary helping verbs can independently function as the only verb when they are used correctly. On the other hand, modal helping verbs are never used without a main verb to which they provide meaning. Think of them as a means of transportation. They are the vessel through which meaning travels to the main verb. Sometimes, modal and primary helping verbs are both used to create the verb phrase. Consider the following sentences.

Example 1: She is not there (“is” is only verb, and is used correct grammatically).

Example 2: She will like the gift (“will” is a modal helping verb, removing the verb “like” makes the sentence grammatically incorrect and nonsensical – “She will the gift”).

Example 3: She may be there tomorrow (“may” is a modal helping verb and “be” is the main verb).

How do they provide meaning?

Helping verbs slightly alter the meaning of the main verb through demonstrating an ability, showing possibility, defining the verb tense or making the verb negative. One or more helping verbs are used to provide one of these meanings. In the case of tenses, the helping verb may actually accomplish two things, such as showing future tense and expressing a possibility. Consider the meaning and tense provided by helping verbs in the following examples:

Example 1: She can dance (“can” is the helping verb and shows she has the ability to dance).

Example 2: She might dance (“might” is the helping verb and shows the possibility of her dancing).

Example 3: She will dance (“will” is the helping verb and shows her intention to dance in the future).

Example 4: She did not dance (“did” is the helping verb – it shows past tense, and the addition of “not” makes the verb phrase, “did not dance,” negative).

Why is the present tense of the main verb used?

It is important to realize that when a main verb has a helping verb to assist in providing meaning and tense, the present tense of the main verb is used. For example, the simple past or past participle form of a verb is not used. Consider the below example using the verb “dance.”

Example 5: She did dance (using the present tense of the verb).

Example 6: She danced (past tense form of the verb).

Example 7: She had danced.

In the last example, the helping verb is not necessary to show tense when the past tense form of the main verb is used. Instead, the sentence should read as it does in the 6th example. This shows that she danced at some point in the past without any assistance, so it is repetitive to use the helping verb.