Helping verbs

Helping verbs, also known to their friends (they have a lot; they're so helpful) as auxiliary verbs, help the main verb show when the action happened; they can also help the verb ask questions.

How nice of them.

The main verb, plus one or more helping verbs, forms a verb phrase.
- am, are
- be, been, being
- did, do, does
- had, has, have
- is, was, were
- can, could
- may, might
- must, ought to
- shall, should
- will, would

*The word not is never a helping verb. When it comes to picking out helping verbs, it just gets in the way. Not is to a verb phrase what a speed bump is to a leafy residential street—especially when you're late for school.



" If Brett asks Erin to prom, she might die. "

In this example, the main verb, die, is helped by might. As for Erin, she's beyond help. Get a grip, Erin.

" Laura could go to Jason's party, or she could stay home and play Grand Theft Auto in her pajamas all weekend. "

Here, both go and stay are helped by the verb could.

" Will you ask your mom if I can stay for dinner? "

Here, we add the verb will to the main verb, ask, to form a question. A very, very important question since it's meatloaf night.


Common mistakes


Choosing between may and might is one of the most difficult decisions you will ever make.

Okay, maybe not, but it's still hard. Why?

These days, the two are basically interchangeable. We're going to tell you the rule for when to use each one, but you'll never really be wrong in choosing one over the other. In most situations, it's a win-win. We say "most" because your English teachers might not be so flexible.

You want to use may if something is likely to happen. If you move to New York City, you may become a Yankees fan. Your Red Sox cronies may not be too pleased with you, though.

When something is more of a stretch, go ahead and use might. You think baseball is the most boring sport ever invented. One day you might enjoy watching, but you're not promising anything to your new girlfriend, the Giants' #1 Fan.


"Considering that I was awake until midnight writing a paper, I may sleep in tomorrow. Don't even think about waking me up, Mom, because I might just punch you in the face."

In the sentence above, you're tired (and rightly so). You'll probably sleep in, so the verb may works best there. Would you actually sock your mom in the face? We don't know for sure, but we're guessing you wouldn't. So you'd plug in might there since the action probably won't happen. If you do end up decking your sweet, sweet mother, we're calling the cops—and your grammar is wrong.


When it comes to verbs, may is quite the troublemaker. So how do you know if you should use may or if you should use can?

You use the verb can when you are asking if something is possible.

You use the verb may to ask if something is permissible.

Your teacher doesn't know if you can go to the bathroom. That's a pretty personal matter, so why would you even think about asking that? What you want to know is if you have permission to visit the little girls' or boys' room.

And yes, it's one of the most annoying things on the planet when you ask someone "Can I [fill in the action]?" and they respond "I don't know… can you?"

We love good grammar, but… don't be that guy.


"If you can, I'd love it if you picked up one of those stuffed-crust pizzas with extra anchovies on your way home from school."

The desirability of anchovies as a pizza topping is debatable. But one thing there's no debate about is the desirability of can in this sentence. We can assume the speaker has permission to pick up the pizza, and that's not really the issue here anyway.

What's in question is whether he's able to pick it up. Does he get off work in time? Does he have enough money and gas to get it? Has he been cut off from the pizza place by a water main leak? So many questions surround his ability to pick up that pizza that can is practically crying out "Pick me, pick me!"



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