By Geraldine Woods

In addition to has, have, had, and the be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, and so on), you can attach a few other helpers to a main verb, and in doing so, change the meaning of the sentence slightly. Consider hiring the following helpers:

  • Should and must add a sense of duty. Notice the sense of obligation in these two sentences: “David should put the ice cream away before he eats the whole thing.” “David must reduce his cholesterol, according to his doctor.”
  • Can and could imply ability. Could is the past tense of can. Choose the tense that matches the tense of the main verb or the time period expressed in the sentence, as in these examples, “If Hanna can help, she will.” or “Courtney could stray from the beaten path, depending on the weather.”
  • May and might add possibility to the sentence. Strictly speaking, might is for past events, and may for present, but these days people interchange the two forms: “I may go to the picnic if I can find a bottle of ant-killer.” “I told Courtney that she might want to bring some insect repellent.”
  • Would usually expresses a condition or willingness. This helper explains under what circumstances something may happen. (“I would have brought the cat had I known about the mouse problem.”) Would may also express willingness. (“He would bait the trap.”) Would sometimes communicates repeated past actions. (“Every Saturday he would go to the pet store for more mouse food.”) The present tense of would, the helping verb will, may also indicate a condition in the present or future. (“I will go if I can find a free ticket.”)

Practice questions

Add a helper to the main verb. The information in parentheses after the fill-in-the-blank sentence explains what meaning the sentence should have.

  1. The mayor __________________ make an effort to be more open to the press. (duty)
  2. All good reporters __________________ know that if a tree falls or is planted in the forest, the sound is heard by a wide audience only if a radio reporter is there. (duty)

Answers to practice questions

  1. should. Once you imply duty, should is the helper you want.
  2. should. Gotta get that duty in, and should does the job.