Helping verbs or auxiliary verbs such as
shall, may, might, can, could, must, ought to, should, would, used to, need
are used in conjunction with main verbs to express shades of time and
mood. The combination of helping verbs with main verbs creates what are
called verb phrases or verb strings. In the following
sentence, "will have been" are helping or auxiliary verbs and "studying" is
the main verb; the whole verb string is underlined:
Students should remember that adverbs and contracted forms are
not, technically, part of the verb. In the sentence, "He has already
started." the adverb already modifies the verb, but it is not really
part of the verb. The same is true of the 'nt in "He hasn't started
yet" (the adverb not, represented by the contracted n't, is
not part of the verb, has started).
and forms of have, do and be
combine with main verbs to indicate time and voice. As auxiliaries, the
verbs be, have and do can change form to indicate changes in
subject and time.
I shall go now.
He had won the election.
They did write that novel together.
I am going now.
He was winning the election.
They have been writing that novel for a long time.
Uses of Shall and Will
In England, shall is used to express the simple
future for first person I and we, as in "Shall we meet
by the river?" Will would be used in the simple future for
all other persons. Using will in the first person would
express determination on the part of the speaker, as in "We will
finish this project by tonight, by golly!" Using shall in
second and third persons would indicate some kind of promise about
the subject, as in "This shall be revealed to you in good time."
This usage is certainly acceptable in the U.S., although shall
is used far less frequently. The distinction between the two is
often obscured by the contraction 'll, which is the same for
In the United States, we seldom use shall for
anything other than polite questions (suggesting an element of
permission) in the first-person:
(In the second sentence, many writers
would use should instead, although should is somewhat
more tentative than shall.) In the U.S., to express the
future tense, the verb will is used in all other cases.
Shall is often used in formal
situations (legal or legalistic documents, minutes to meetings,
etc.) to express obligation, even with third-person and
Should is usually replaced,
nowadays, by would. It is still used, however, to mean "ought
to" as in
In British English and very formal
American English, one is apt to hear or read should with the
first-person pronouns in expressions of liking such as "I should
prefer iced tea" and in tentative expressions of opinion such as
Uses of Do, Does and Did
In the simple present tense, do will function as
an auxiliary to express the negative and to ask questions. (Does,
however, is substituted for third-person, singular subjects in the
present tense. The past tense did works with all persons,
singular and plural.)
These verbs also work as "short
answers," with the main verb omitted.
With "yes-no" questions, the form of
do goes in front of the subject and the main verb comes after
Forms of do are useful in
expressing similarity and differences in conjunction with
so and neither.
Do is also helpful because it
means you don't have to repeat the verb:
The so-called emphatic do has
many uses in English.
To add emphasis to an entire sentence: "He does
like spinach. He really does!"
To add emphasis to an imperative: "Do come
in." (actually softens the command)
To add emphasis to a frequency adverb: "He never
did understand his father." "She always does manage
to hurt her mother's feelings."
To contradict a negative statement: "You didn't do
your homework, did you?" "Oh, but I did finish it."
To ask a clarifying question about a previous
negative statement: "Ridwell didn't take the tools." "Then who
did take the tools?"
To indicate a strong concession: "Although the
Clintons denied any wrong-doing, they did return some of
In the absence of other modal
auxiliaries, a form of do is used in question and negative
constructions known as the get passive:
Uses of Have, Has and
Forms of the verb to have are used to create
tenses known as the present perfect and past perfect.
The perfect tenses indicate that something has happened in the past;
the present perfect indicating that something happened and might be
continuing to happen, the past perfect indicating that something
happened prior to something else happening. (That sounds worse than
it really is!) See the section on Verb Tenses in the Active Voice
for further explanation; also review material in the Directory of
To have is also in combination
with other modal verbs to express probability and possibility in the
As an affirmative statement, to have can
express how certain you are that something happened (when
combined with an appropriate modal + have + a past
participle): "Georgia must have left already." "Clinton might
have known about the gifts." "They may have voted already."
As a negative statement, a modal is combined with
not + have + a past participle to express how
certain you are that something did not happen: "Clinton might
not have known about the gifts." "I may not have been there at
the time of the crime."
To ask about possibility or probability in the
past, a modal is combined with the subject + have + past
participle: "Could Clinton have known about the gifts?"
For short answers, a modal is combined with have:
"Did Clinton know about this?" "I don't know. He may have." "The
evidence is pretty positive. He must have."
To have (sometimes combined
with to get) is used to express a logical inference:
Have is often combined with an
infinitive to form an auxiliary whose meaning is similar to "must."
I have to have a car like that!
She has to pay her own tuition at college.
He has to have been the first student to try that.
Other helping verbs, called modal auxiliaries or
modals, such as can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall,
should, will, and would, do not change form for different
subjects. For instance, try substituting any of these modal auxiliaries for
can with any of the subjects listed below.
can write well.
Uses of Can and Could
The modal auxiliary can is
to express ability (in the sense of being able to
do something or knowing how to do something):
He can speak Spanish but he can't write it very well.
to expression permission (in the sense of being
allowed or permitted to do something):
Can I talk to my friends in the library waiting room? (Note that
can is less formal than may. Also, some writers
will object to the use of can in this context.)
to express theoretical possibility:
American automobile makers can make better cars if they think
there's a profit in it.
The modal auxiliary could is
to express an ability in the past:
I could always beat you at tennis when we were kids.
to express past or future permission:
Could I bury my cat in your back yard?
to express present possibility:
We could always spend the afternoon just sitting around talking.
to express possibility or ability in contingent
If he studied harder, he could pass this course.
In expressing ability, can and
could frequently also imply willingness: Can you help me with
Whether the auxiliary verb can can be used to
express permission or not — "Can I leave the room now?" ["I don't
know if you can, but you may."] — depends on the level of formality
of your text or situation. As Theodore Bernstein puts it in The
Careful Writer, "a writer who is attentive to the proprieties
will preserve the traditional distinction: can for ability or
power to do something, may for permission to do it.
The question is at what level can you safely ignore the
"proprieties." Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, tenth edition, says the
battle is over and can can be used in virtually any situation
to express or ask for permission. Most authorities, however,
recommend a stricter adherence to the distinction, at least in
Uses of May and Might
Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries are
may and might. When used in the context of granting or
seeking permission, might is the past tense of may.
Might is considerably more tentative than may.
In the context of expressing
possibility, may and might are interchangeable present
and future forms and might + have + past participle is
the past form:
She might be my advisor next semester.
She may be my advisor next semester.
She might have advised me not to take biology.
Avoid confusing the sense of possibility in may
with the implication of might, that a hypothetical situation
has not in fact occurred. For instance, let's say there's been a
helicopter crash at the airport. In his initial report, before all
the facts are gathered, a newscaster could say that the pilot "may
have been injured." After we discover that the pilot is in fact all
right, the newscaster can now say that the pilot "might have
been injured" because it is a hypothetical situation that has not
occurred. Another example: a body had been identified after much
work by a detective. It was reported that "without this painstaking
work, the body may have remained unidentified." Since the
body was, in fact, identified, might is clearly called for.
Uses of Will and Would
In certain contexts, will and would are
virtually interchangeable, but there are differences. Notice that
the contracted form 'll is very frequently used for will.
Will can be used to express
It can also express intention
(especially in the first person):
specific: The meeting will be over soon.
timeless: Humidity will ruin my hairdo.
habitual: The river will overflow its banks every
Would can also be used to
It can also express insistence (rather
rare, and with a strong stress on the word "would"):
and characteristic activity:
customary: After work, he would walk to his home in
typical (casual): She would cause the whole family
to be late, every time.
In a main clause, would can
express a hypothetical meaning:
My cocker spaniel would weigh a ton if I let her
eat what she wants.
Finally, would can express
a sense of probability:
I hear a whistle. That would be the five o'clock
Uses of Used to
The auxiliary verb construction used to
is used to express an action that took place in the past, perhaps
customarily, but now that action no longer customarily takes place:
The spelling of this verb is a problem
for some people because the "-ed" ending quite naturally disappears
in speaking: "We yoostoo take long trips." But it ought not to
disappear in writing. There are exceptions, though. When the
auxiliary is combined with another auxiliary, did, the past
tense is carried by the new auxiliary and the "-ed" ending is
dropped. This will often happen in the interrogative:
Used to can also be used to convey the sense of
being accustomed to or familiar with something:
The tire factory down the road really stinks, but
we're used to it by now.
I like these old sneakers; I'm used to them.
Used to is best reserved for colloquial usage;
it has no place in formal or academic text.
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