Helping verbs are verbs that, as their name suggests, help the main verb in a sentence by extending the meaning of the verb. They add detail to how time is conveyed in a sentence. As a result, helping verbs are used to create the most complicated verb tenses in English: the progressive and the perfect aspects.
These verbs also function to convey complicated shades of meaning like expectation, permission, probability, potential, obligation, and direction. In modern linguistics, this class of verbs is called auxiliary verbs. The meanings of these two terms are interchangeable.
There are 13 verbs that can be used as helping verbs in English. Some of these verbs have multiple forms, bringing the total to 26:
Different helping verbs are used for different purposes in sentences. One of their main functions is to situate the action of a sentence in a particular aspect of time. The two main aspects that helping verbs play a role in are the progressive aspect and the perfect aspect.
When the main verb in a sentence ends in –ing, the progressive aspect is often being used. This aspect is used to convey the notion that an action is occurring in an ongoing fashion.
The forms of the helping verb to be (am, is, are, was, and were) are used to create this aspect.
The following sentences are examples of helping verbs being used to express this action:
There are three different forms of the perfect aspect in English: past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect.
Forms of the verb to have (has, have, and had) and will and won’t are often used to create the various perfect aspects.
The perfect aspect is subdivided into:
The following sentences demonstrate how helping verbs are used to create these aspects:
Helping verbs perform other specific tasks to further modify the action or meaning of the main verb. When functioning in this manner, they are known as modal helping verbs. The verbs can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, and must are most commonly used for this purpose.
The following sentences are examples:
The verb phrase in a sentence can include no more than three helping verbs.
When used properly, helping verbs perform some of the most intricate work in English verb phrases. The more complex aspects, progressive and perfect, should be approached by writers who already have an advanced understanding of English sentence structure.
For second language learners, helping verbs can pose particular problems and should therefore be studied after a solid foundation of simple verbs has been achieved.