Adding Shades of Meaning with Helping Verbs

By Geraldine Woods

Helping verbs change the meaning of a sentence by adding a sense of duty, probability, willingness, and so forth. Concentrate on the italicized verbs in these examples. All are add-ons, or helping verbs. The main verbs appear in bold type. Notice how the meaning changes:

Rita may attend the party. Her boss might be there.

The helping verbs may and might expresses possibility: Rita will go if she’s in a good mood and stay home if she isn’t. Same thing for the boss. May takes on another meaning, too. The same helping verb can express permission: Rita’s father checked out the party and okayed it.

Rita should attend every official event. She must go.

The helping verbs should and must mean that attending is a duty or obligation. Even if Rita wants to sit on her sofa and knit socks, she has to attend.

Rita would stay home if she could do so. She can sleep during the show, though.

Two helpers appear in the first sentence. The helping verb would shows willingness or preference. The helping verb could makes a statement about ability. In the second sentence, can also refers to ability.

Find the helping verbs in this sentence. Decide how the helping verb affects the meaning.

Would you consider a campaign for president if Lamar must step down?

Answer: Would is a helping verb that adds a sense of possibility to the main verb, consider. Must is a helping verb the implies an obligation. It is attached to the main verb step.

Some grammarians are very strict about the difference between some pairs of helpers — can/may, can/could and may/might. They see can as ability only, and may as permission. Similarly, a number of grammarians allow can and may for present actions only, with might and could reserved for past tense. These days, most people interchange all these helpers and end up with fine sentences. Don’t worry too much about these pairs.

Distinguishing between helping verbs and main verbs isn’t particularly important, as long as you get the whole thing when you’re identifying the verb in a sentence. If you find only part of the verb, you may confuse action verbs with linking verbs. You want to keep these two types of verbs straight when you choose an ending for your sentence.

To decide whether you have an action verb or a linking verb, look at the main verb, not at the helping verbs. If the main verb expresses action, the whole verb is action, even if one of the helpers is a form of to be. For example:

is going

has been painted

should be strangled

are all action verbs, not linking verbs, because going, painted, and strangled express action.