We use helping verbs, or auxiliary verbs with a main verb to help support and express the mood, tense, or voice of a main verb.
In their infinitive forms, the key helping verbs used in English are: to be, to have, and to do. Here are their other forms:
- To be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, will be
- To have: have, has, had, having, will have
- To do: do, did, does, will do
Expressing Tense with Helping Verbs
As stated, helping verbs can help express the tense of a main verb and show when something happened, is happening, or will happen.
Continuous Tense Examples:
In each of these examples, the helping verb alters the continuous tense form.
- She was running for thirty minutes. – Past Continuous
- She is running in the race today. – Present Continuous
- She will be running in tomorrow’s race at 1pm. – Future Continuous
Perfect Tense Examples
In each of these examples, the helping verb ‘to have’ alters the perfect tense form.
- I had worked 70 hours. – Past Perfect
- I have worked a lot this week. – Present Perfect
- I will have worked 40 hours by this time next Tuesday. –Future Perfect
Perfect Continuous Tense Examples
In each of these examples, the helping verb ‘to have’ and ‘been’ alters the perfect continuous tense form.
- I had been waiting for 30 minutes. – Past Perfect Continuous
- I have been waiting for 30 minutes. – Present Perfect Continuous
- I will have been waiting for 30 minutes when the clock strikes 1p. – Future Perfect Continuous
Expressing Mood with Helping Verbs
Sometimes the helping verb ‘to do’ can alter the mood of a sentence and turn it into a positive, negative, or an imperative statement or we can use it to ask a question. Here are some examples:
- I do not want to go. – Negative
- I do love you. – Positive
- Don’t take a step until we’re sure it’s safe. – Imperative
- Do you think about her? – Question
Expressing Voice with Helping Verbs
Last, the helping verb ‘to be’ and it’s many forms can change the voice of a sentence into the passive voice. In passive voice, the subject has an action done to it instead of doing the action.
- The game was won by the team from Arlington.
- The gold is mainly used by manufacturers.
- The electricity will be switched off around 3p.m. Note: Switched off is a phrasal verb.
Modal Verbs (Auxiliary)
Modal verbs are auxiliary or helping verbs that help express deeper meaning or ideas in a sentence like: intention, ability, necessity, possibility, permission, believe, and advice.
Here are the most common modal verbs: may, must, can, would, could, should, will, shall, and might.
Fortunately, these modal verbs never change forms!
Modals expressing necessity
- You must go to the next town over if you want to find her.
- They shouldn’t walk over there.
- We should make a promise not to overeat this holiday season.
Modals expressing possibility
- She might go if she doesn’t have an appointment.
- We could go if we’re not tied up with work.
- I may stay if the weather is bad.
Modal verbs expressing ability
- I can do it if I put my mind to it!
- She could do it when she was younger.
- I can’t see anything.
There are many, many more examples of modal verbs in use, so see our main page on modal verbs to get the whole picture.
Three Points for ESL students to Remember about Helping Verbs
With the examples above, we can see how helping verbs are used in different contexts. However, there are three common points that ESL students should remember about helping verbs as these points are often used incorrectly.
1. ‘Could of’, ‘would of’, and ‘should of’ are not words in English.
Often, English learners hear native speakers saying the contracted forms of ‘could have’, ‘would have’, and ‘should have’. Though they may sound like the speaker is using ‘of’ instead of the contraction ‘-ve’, the contractions are could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve. As in:
- I could’ve gone if I didn’t have to work.
- She should’ve told someone!
- He would’ve been there if his tire hadn’t blown out.
2. ‘Can’t’ is written out as ‘cannot’
When writing, English speakers commonly spell out ‘cannot’ as one word instead of two. As in:
- I cannot go outside without my jacket.
- He cannot walk without his cane.
However, cannot is sometimes spelled as ‘can not’ when the writer wants to emphasize something.
- I can not go with you tomorrow!
3. ‘Can’ is a modal verb used for ability expressions. ‘May’ is a modal verb used for permission expressions.
- I can run a mile in 5 minutes.
- She could jump as high as a deer!
- May I have a quarter?
- May I speak with her?
However, you’ll commonly hear English speakers informally use ‘can’ when asking permission for something. It’s technically incorrect, but it’s the most common form.
- Mom, can I go to the movies with John?
Those are the basics for learning helping verbs (auxiliary verbs) in English. Remember, if you want to learn about the different types of verbs, visit all of the links on this page and in the grammar section of the English Speaking Blog.
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On our platform, you can learn English by having real discussions with real speakers without all of the textbook learning. We use current events and other interesting topics to create discussions that allow you to explore more English concepts that you can on your own.