Helping Verbs

Helping Verbs, also called Auxiliary Verbs, are not always clearly understood.

A Common Misunderstanding

It is not uncommon among students of English, especially those who began seriously learning the language late in life, to mistakenly believe that some words are always auxiliary verbs and others always main verbs.

For instance, in the minds of such students, the verb 'is' in the sentence, 'John is a good student.' is incorrectly branded as an auxiliary verb. They consider all occurrences of 'is' as auxiliary verbs.

The Correct Understanding

The truth is that the verb 'is' can function as a helping verb in one sentence and as a main verb in another...

  • John is a good student.
    (is - is a main verb in this sentence).

  • John is reading a book.
    (is - is a helping verb and reading is the main verb, both these verbs together forming a single finite verb phrase).

So then...

What are Helping Verbs?

Helping Verbs are part of finite verb phrases.

Finite verb phrases usually have a main part and a helping part.

Finite verbs are usually phrases (groups of words), except for two instances, when they are single words.

Those two exceptional cases are:

  • the simple present tense active affirmative (e.g. sing/sings)
  • the simple past tense active affirmative (e.g. sang)

Here are some examples of finite verb phrases in sentences...

  • I write an article every week.
  • Now the article is written.
  • My daughter has been writing it since last Monday.
  • In my wife's opinion, I should have been writing it.

The finite verbs in the sentences above can be broken up into helping verbs
and main verbs as follows:

Helping verb(s) Main Verb
      write
    is written
  has been writing
should have been writing

From this table we know that write, written and writing are the main verbs. Each of them is a different form of the verb 'to write.'

All the other verbs in the table are helping verbs.

  • Both is and been are forms of the verb to be.
  • has and have are forms of the verb to have.
  • The verb should is called a modal auxiliary (or simply a modal).

You can also notice that in the four sentences above...

  • there is no helping verb in the first sentence,
  • you find one, two, and three of them in the second, third and fourth sentences respectively.

There is a main verb in all the sentences. So, a helping verb requires a main verb to receive its help.

Without a main verb, there can be no helping verb.


How Do Helping Verbs Help?

Some helping verbs help syntactically

They perform some grammatical function, as...

  • in forming the passive,
  • in expressing the continuity (progressive) aspect,
  • in expressing the perfect (completed) aspect,
  • in providing a dummy verb where a negative or interrogative sentence is to be made in particular tenses.

These are called Primary Auxiliaries.

Other helping verbs perform semantic functions

They add meaning to the meaning of the main verb. What they add are meanings like...

  • ability,
  • possibility,
  • permission,
  • command,
  • habitual action, etc.

These are called Modal Auxiliaries or simply, Modals.

For Further Reading and Study...


Related Pages

The Study of Verbs

What is a Verb?

List of Verbs

Principal Parts of Verbs


Types of Verbs

Finite Verbs

Non-Finites (Verbals)

Transitive Verbs

Helping Verbs


Verb Tenses

Subject-Verb Agreement