What is a Helping Verb? Definition, Examples of Auxiliary Verbs

Helping verb definition: Helping verbs (also called auxiliary verbs) are English verbs that help the main verb to convey time. Helping verbs modify verb tense. For a helping verbs list, see below.

What is a Helping Verb / What is an Auxiliary Verb?

What are helping verbs? A helping verb does just that—it “helps” the main verb to create a different verb tense. The helping verb may also help a main verb to show possibility or potential.

A verb only becomes a helping verb when it is paired with a main verb.

The most common English helping verb is “to be.” Conjugated forms of “to be” that create a helping verb include: is, am, was, were, being, been.

Helping Verb Examples

Here is an example of “to be” used as a main verb:

  • I am

what is an auxiliary verb examplesIn this example, the conjugated form of “to be” for the subject “I” is “am.” There is no other verb in this sentence. Therefore, “to be” is the main verb.

Here is an example of “to be” used as a helping verb:

  • I am going to the market today.

In this example, “to go” is the main verb. When the helping verb “to be” is added to the sentence, the conjugated verb phrase “am going” creates the present progressive verb tense. The helping verb “to be” (am in this sentence) must be used to make this verb tense.

List of Helping Verbs

Here is a list of helping verbs:

  • to be (can be conjugated)
  • to have (can be conjugated)
  • to do (can be conjugated)
  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

What is the Purpose of Helping/Auxiliary Verbs?

commone helping verbs examplesThe first two helping verbs listed above may be conjugated to help create verb tense.

  • “To be” with a main verb creates the progressive tenses and passive voice.
    • I am going to the market today. (progressive)
    • The novel was written. (passive)
  • “To have” with a main verb creates the perfect tenses.
    • She has owned three cars prior to purchasing a truck.
    • I have eaten too much today.

“To do” may also be conjugated and when combined with a main verb creates emphasis.

  • I do believe in magic.

The remaining helping verbs listed above help create conditions.

  • Dan can run.
  • Dan could run.
  • Dan may run.
  • Dan might run.
  • Dan must run.
  • Dan shall run.
  • Dan should
  • Dan will run.
  • Dan would run.

Helping verbs can be identified when they are paired with main verbs.

To locate a helping verb in your sentence, look immediately before you main verb to see if one is before it. For example,

  • Dan can run. (“can” is helping verb).
  • I am going to the market today. (“am” is a helping verb).

To see if a sentence includes a helping verb, remove the helping verb. If the sentence still makes sense (with slight main verb conjugation), then a helping verb exists in the sentence.

Primary Helping Verbs

helping verbs definitionWhat are primary helping verbs? Primary helping verbs are verbs that can stand alone in a statement, without a main verb.

These verbs include:

  • to be
  • to have
  • to do

Primary Helping Verb Examples

Examples of primary helping verbs in use:

  • to be
    • I am
    • I was
  • to have
    • I have three dogs.
    • She has a sore back.
  • to do
    • I did my assignment yesterday.
    • He does gymnastics daily.

Modal Helping Verbs

What are modal helping verbs? Modal helping verbs (also called modal auxiliary verbs) are helping verbs that must be used in a verb phrase (helping verb plus main verb) in order to be grammatically correct.

Modal Verb List

what is helping verb listThe modal helping verbs include:

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

Examples of Modal Verbs

Examples of modal helping verbs in use:

  • Dan can run. (“can” is the helping verb).
  • I might go to the market today. (“might” is the helping verb).     

Helping Verbs and Verb Phrases

is will a helping verbIn its simplest form, a verb phrase is a helping verb plus a main verb. When a helping verb and a main verb are used in conjunction they create a verb phrase.


  • I was walking with Jacob yesterday.
    • “was” (helping verb) plus “walking” (main verb) creates the verb phrase
  • Joann might attend the conference.
    • “might” (helping verb) plus “attend” (main verb) creates the verb phrase
  • You must retain this information.
    • “must” (helping verb) plus “retain” (main verb) creates the verb phrase

Summary: What are Helping Verbs?

Define helping verb: the definition of helping verbs is quite simple: they are a set of verbs used in forming the tenses, moods, and voices of other verbs. For examples of helping verbs, see above.

Regarding helping verbs use, remember:

  • Helping verbs create different verb tenses or show condition.
  • Helping verbs are almost always paired with a main verb (exception: primary helping verbs).
  • Helping verbs paired with main verbs create verb phrases.