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Helping Verbs

Helping verbs are also called "auxiliary verbs".

Helping verbs have no meaning on their own. They are necessary for the grammatical structure of a sentence, but they do not tell us very much alone. We usually use helping verbs with main verbs. They "help" the main verb (which has the real meaning). There are only about 15 helping verbs in English, and we divide them into two basic groups:

Primary helping verbs (3 verbs)

These are the verbs be, do, and have. Note that we can use these three verbs as helping verbs or as main verbs. On this page we talk about them as helping verbs. We use them in the following cases:

  • be
    • to make continuous tenses (He is watching TV.)
    • to make the passive (Small fish are eaten by big fish.)


  • have
    • to make perfect tenses (I have finished my homework.)


  • do
    • to make negatives (I do not like you.)
    • to ask questions (Do you want some coffee?)
    • to show emphasis (I do want you to pass your exam.)
    • to stand for a main verb in some constructions (He speaks faster than she does.)

Modal helping verbs (10 verbs)

We use modal helping verbs to "modify" the meaning of the main verb in some way. A modal helping verb expresses necessity or possibility, and changes the main verb in that sense. These are the modal verbs:

  • can, could
  • may, might
  • will, would,
  • shall, should
  • must
  • ought to

Here are examples using modal verbs:

  • I can't speak Chinese.
  • John may arrive late.
  • Would you like a cup of coffee?
  • You should see a doctor.
  • I really must go now.

Main Verbs »

Semi-modal verbs (3 verbs)
The following verbs are often called "semi-modals" because they are partly like modal helping verbs and partly like main verbs:
  • need
  • dare
  • used to

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