What are auxiliary verbs? A guide to these helpful English words

What are auxiliary verbs? A guide to these helpful English words

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated September 20, 2022

Auxiliary verbs help complete the meaning of the main verb. They are also known as helping verbs because they help the main verb. The main auxiliary verbs are to be, to have and to do. You probably learned these verbs at the beginning of your English studies

This article will explain what auxiliary verbs are and give you plenty of examples so you can practice. 

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What are auxiliary verbs in English?

Auxiliary verbs help the main verb in a sentence and are also called helping verbs

What is a main verb? A main verb is the important verb in the sentence and it shows the action or state of the subject. 

  • Example: I play the piano. 

“I” is the subject. Play is the verb. Play tells us what the subject “I” is doing. 

Main verbs can be the only verb in a sentence. But, auxiliary verbs show up to help the main verb. When used to adjust a main verb, you will see two verbs in the same sentence. Auxiliary verbs are those that help the main verb so they need to stick together. 

Auxiliary verbs in English help us write sentences in different tenses, moods or voices. 

  • The tense of a verb refers to the past, the present and the future. 
  • The mood of a verb refers to how the verb is to be understood. Is it a fact, a command or a wish?
  • The voice of a verb refers to the active or passive voice (who or what is doing the action or being acted upon). 

Ok, now which ones are they? The primary auxiliary verbs are be, do and have. These auxiliary verbs can also act as the main verb in a sentence if you see them alone. 

Primary Auxiliary VerbsTheir forms
To beam, is, are, was, were, being, been, will be
To havehas, have, had, having, will have
To dodoes, do, did, will do

The modal auxiliary verbs are can, could, will, would, shall, should, may might, must and ought. These auxiliary verbs do not change their form. 

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Example of auxiliary verbs

Now that we have learned what auxiliary verbs do, let’s look at some examples. 

Examples of auxiliary verbs expressing tense:

ExampleTense
She was eating.Past progressive
She is eatingPresent progressive
She will be eating later. Future progressive
She had eaten the cake before we arrived.Past perfect tense
She has eaten already. Present perfect tense
She will have eaten by the time we arrive.Future perfect tense

When we use do as an auxiliary verb it is often in negative sentences. 

  • I do not know the truth. 
  • She does not like him. 
  • They did not come to the party. 

Auxiliary verbs help us write passive sentences. 

  • I was given a free piece of pizza. 
  • He was seen at the mall this morning. 
  • This movie has been watched by millions of people. 

We can use auxiliary verbs to ask questions

  • Do you want to have another sandwich? 

Do is the auxiliary verb and want is the main verb. 

  • Did he finish his homework? 

Did is the auxiliary verb and finish is the main verb. 

  • Did you eat? 

Did is the auxiliary verb and eat is the main verb. 

Let’s look at the other group of auxiliary verbs called the modal auxiliary verbs. 

  • We must find my house keys. 
  • We should go to sleep early today. 
  • We might be late. 

In this sentence be is the main verb and might is the auxiliary verb. 

  • Would you like to go to the movies?
  • Can you play the piano? 
  • May I sit here? 

Look for the helping verbs

Auxiliary verbs are very important. If you are learning English and want to take your skills to the next level, auxiliary verbs can help you do this. These verbs will allow you to express yourself in English in many ways. Don’t be afraid of using auxiliary verbs, they are here to help you. 

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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