Helping Verbs

6207557180_44a06c846fThe key to success with English verb tenses is in helping verbs, or auxiliary verbs.

In most of our verb tenses, we use more than one verb in a sentence to show:

  • time
    (past, present, or future)
  • aspect
    (simple, continuous, perfect, or perfect continuous).

We string the verbs together like a strand of beads.

The helping verb(s) always go first. The main verbs always go last. It’s a very reliable pattern!

Most students learn Simple Present first, and then Simple Past. Unfortunately, these are misleading. They do not always use helping verbs.

All of the other verb tenses (12 total) use at least one helping verb every single time.

Building Verb Tenses

In general, the main verb provides the dictionary meaning (and sometimes time and aspect also).

The helping verb(s) do not provide dictionary meaning – they just give the full picture of time and aspect.

Example 1:

I ran.

Verb = “ran” – shows meaning “run” and the past time and simple aspect


Example 2:

I did not run.

Helping Verb = “did” – shows past time and simple aspect

Verb = “run” – shows meaning “run”

Example 3:

I am running.

Helping Verb = “am” – shows present time and continuous aspect

Verb = “running” – shows meaning “run” and continuous aspect

This is how we build verb tenses in English.

This is the pattern. Right here, in this short post, is the key. You’ll see it again and again as you study the twelve verb tenses.

If you’re getting confused by the details, go back to the basics. Remember that in English we like to string our verbs together to build verb tenses. We always put them in a predictable order, with the helping verb(s) first.

Look for the pattern and you’ll find it!

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

  1. The verb ends in -ing. Does that mean Present Continuous?

    It may or may not.

    Present Continuous depends on two verbs: am/is/are + verb-ing.

    It is not enough to look at one verb alone! You need to see what is before it.

    Other possibilities are that the -ing verb is a gerund or part of a different Continuous or Perfect Continuous verb tense.

  2. How is it possible for “I have had” to be correct?

    Firstly, yes, this is correct. For example, “I have had a headache all day.” Sad, but grammatically correct Present Perfect. It sounds normal to native English speakers.

    The helping verb goes first, then the main verb. So even if they’re the same word, it’s simple to identify which is which.

        Helping Verb = have – shows present time and perfect aspect

    Verb = had – shows meaning (possessive) and past time

  3. What is the difference between Present Continuous and Past Continuous?

    The only difference in form is the helping verb.

    Present Continuous has a present helping verb. It means the time is the present.

         I am running.

    Past Continuous has a past helping verb. It means the time was in the past.

         I was running.


Photo Credit: Sarah Joy on Flickr

This post appeared first at English with Emily.


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