Understanding Helping Verbs & Modal Auxilliary Verbs

The Helping Verbs (or as it's also known, Auxiliary Verbs) are well–named because they help main verbs express what the subject does, add grammatical meaning, and change the time or tense of the action.

All main verbs (mv) express action or state of being.

However, these main verbs (mv) almost always need help to express time, condition, or circumstances of the action.

This is where helping verbs (hv) serve its purpose, helping the main verbs to express tense or time of the action and allow us the flexibility to conveniently communicate meaning and a wide variety of ideas and attitudes.

The complete verb of a sentence will include a main verb (mv) and any helping verbs, which can be as many as three to four helping verbs.

Below are some sentences with helping verbs (underlined):
  • Andy drives. (drives = mv)
  • He has driven. (has = hv, driven = mv)
  • He has been driving. (has & been = hv; driving = mv)
  • He might have been driving (might, have, and been are all (hv) helping verbs.)

The abbreviations (hv) and (mv) means helping verb and main verb respectively. The main verb provides the main lexical meaning in the clause Opens in new window. An example is the sentence

Here, the main verb is finished, and the auxiliary (or helping verb) have modifies the main verb to express a perfect tense.

In English, the helping or auxiliary verbs have their specific functions, and may be used with virtually any verb. They are divided into two categories, these are primary verbs: the forms of be, forms of have, forms of do, and the modal verbs: can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, and must, as we have below:

Auxiliary verbsModals
  • Forms of Have: have, has, had
  • Forms of Do: do, does, did
  • Forms of Be: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been
  • can, could
  • may, might
  • shall, should
  • will, would and must

The first kind are forms of have, do, and be known as auxiliary verb. These verbs indicate different tenses, which is the way English express time.

The six basic tenses are the past perfectOpens in new window, the simple pastOpens in new window, the present perfectOpens in new window, the simple presentOpens in new window, the future perfectOpens in new window, and the simple futureOpens in new window.

Note that some helping verbs in certain circumstances function as main verbs. Have can be a transitive verb meaning to possess (I have a dream); been can be a linking verb indicating a state of being (I have been lonely).

The second kind are known as modalsOpens in new window, which express a degree of emphasis, generally referred to as mood. The common moods are the indicativeOpens in new window, the imperativeOpens in new window, and the subjunctiveOpens in new window

Modal helpers are a little different from auxiliary helpers because they never change form. They are easy to use because they always are used with the simple form of the verb.

Examples include:
  • I may want to change my course.
  • You can settle your finances at the bursary.
  • James must inform his boss soon.

Instead of expressing time, modals help verbs express a variety of other things, as follows:

Expression of Possibility:
  • I might pay with cash.
  • we may write a check.
  • That could be true.
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Expression of Permission:
  • He can change the channel.
  • You could leave early.
  • Yes, you may go.
Expression of Necessity, Advisability:
  • You must honour the invitation!
  • We ought to strike that deal.
  • We will have to call later.
Expression of Habitual Lifestyle:
  • I never used to eat dairy foods; I would never eat dairy foods.

Expression of Request:
  • He would like us to discharge him.
  • could you discharge him?
  • Can you do it?

Verb Strings

The combination of two or more helping verbs with a main verb together forms what is called verb phraseOpens in new window or verb string.

In the sentence underneath, “will have been” are helping (auxiliary) verbs and “studying” is the main verb; the whole verb string is underlined:

  • As of next August, I will have been studying chemistry for ten years.

Verb Separation

Sometimes the helping verb may be separated from the main verb by one or more words, usually a modifierOpens in new window.

The main verb could easily be identified because it still tells what the subjectOpens in new window is doing or what is being done to the subject.

Examples include:
  • In banks, customer records are usually stored in a computer database.

    (Here, are usually stored → verb separation. The helping verb are and the main verb stored are separated by the modifier usually.)
  • Information technology has definitely influenced how public organizations operate.

    (In this sentence, has definitely influenced → verb separation. The helping verb has and the main verb influenced are separated by the modifier definitely.)
  • In what ways have mobile networks improved how information flow?

    (Here, have mobile networks improved → verb separation. The helping verb have and the main verb improved are separated by the subject mobile networks.)
Important Hints 
  • A sentence can have up to three or four helping verbs. If there is more than one, they will always be in the following relative order: modal + have + be.
  • When the helping verb is progressive be, the next verb always has -ing added to its base form. e.g. (is eating). The -ing verb form is called present participle.
  • When have is the helping verb, the next verb typically has -ed or -en added to its base or main form. e.g. (has eaten; have washed.) The verb form following the helping verb have is called the past particle.
  • When the helping verb is a modal, the next verb is always in its base form. e.g. (he can dance).