Helping Verbs: Meaning and Types (With Examples)

Helping verbs are defined as verbs that help the main verb in a sentence by extending its meaning. They add detail to the main verb and are needed to complete the structure of a sentence. They can also clarify how time is conveyed in a sentence. As a result, helping verbs are used to create the complicated progressive and perfect verb tenses. Learn about the two types of helping verbs (auxiliary and modal) and review examples of each.

Helping Verbs Table Helping Verbs Table
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Helping Verb Type 1: Auxiliary Verbs

Helping verbs that add meaning to the clause where they are being used are called auxiliary verbs. This usage is so common that the terms helping verb and auxiliary verb are often used interchangeably. This type of helping verb is used to express tense or add emphasis.

Auxiliary Verb Forms

The three most common auxiliary verbs are "to be," "to have" and "to do." Each of these types has multiple forms:

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

Auxiliary Verb Example Sentences

The words "be," "do" and "have" can be either standalone or auxiliary verbs. These words are functioning as auxiliary verbs if they are teamed with other verbs to complete a verb phrase. The following sentences include examples of auxiliary verbs. In each sentence, the auxiliary verb is bold and the verb it is helping is underlined.

  • I am having another piece of pizza.
  • She is making dinner for us now.
  • They are planning to go out of town.
  • She was given the grand prize.
  • We were pleased to be included.
  • Will you be going?
  • I've been running for over an hour.
  • I have grown tomatoes before.
  • Who has traveled to Colorado?
  • He had asked if he could take that blanket.
  • I do find that show amusing.
  • Sally goes skiing every winter.
  • Who did solve the puzzle?

Helping Verb Type 2: Modal Verbs

Not all helping verbs are auxiliary verbs. Helping verbs sometimes perform other tasks within a sentence. Helping verbs that further modify the action or meaning of the main verb in a sentence are called modal verbs.

List of Modal Verbs

There are a number of modal verbs in the English language. Modal verbs do not change form.

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • will
  • would
  • shall
  • should
  • must
  • ought to
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Modal Verb Example Sentences

Modal verbs help to show obligation, possibility or necessity in a sentence. The following sentences include examples of modal helping verbs. In each sample sentence, the modal verb is bold and the verb the modal verb is helping is underlined.

  • Sal can name all the U.S. presidents.
  • I wish I could sing.
  • I may leave a day early.
  • I might eat pizza for dinner.
  • I will read two books this weekend.
  • Would you mind if I stayed here for a while?
  • Who shall volunteer to lead the committee?
  • You should go home and lie down.
  • When it's your turn, you must go.
  • This ought to fix the problem.

Progressive and Perfect Aspects

Different helping verbs are used for different purposes in sentences. One of the main functions of an auxiliary verb is to situate the action of a sentence in a particular aspect of time. Auxiliary verbs play a role in the progressive and perfect aspects of time. In the example sentences below, the helping verbs are bold and the main verbs are underlined.

Using the Progressive Aspect

When the main verb in a sentence ends in -ing, the progressive tense is often being used. This tense 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 convey the progressive tense.

  • I am renting my guesthouse to my neighbor.
  • Steve is starting a new personal training business.
  • Christopher and Bernadette are moving to Baton Rouge.
  • It is raining almost every day.
  • We were planning our next vacation.
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Using the Perfect Aspect

The perfect aspect is used to explain an action that is/was/will be in a state of progress and is/was/will be completed before a particular time. Forms of the verbs "to have" and "to do" are often used to create the various perfect tenses. There are three different forms of the perfect aspect in English: past perfect, present perfect and future perfect. The perfect aspect can also be used in the continuous form to show actions that are ongoing.

The continuous tenses are often described as progressive rather than continuous.

Helping Verbs Usage Rules and Tips

Now that you know what helping verbs are, it's also important to keep in mind that the verb phrase in a sentence should not include 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. Helping verbs should be studied after a solid foundation of simple verbs has been achieved. If you need to review a bit before tackling these tenses, go back and explore the basics of verbs.