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Helping Verbs

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Helping verbs aid in expressing the mood, tense, and voice of the main verb. Combining a helping verb with the main verb can help indicate time and other meanings. The helping verbs be and have are unlike modal verbs because they can function alone in a sentence, acting as the main verb.

Recent Past

HAVE + a verb in the past tense describes an action that began in the past, is still going on in the present, or one that occurred in the recent past.

    Elisa has submitted her essay for the literary journal.

    I have worked at the deli for two years.

Distant Past

HAD + a past tense verb describes actions that began and ended in the past.

    Michael had discussed his options with the counselor.

    The students had constructed a model for their project.

Present Continuous Action

A form of IS (is, am, are) + [VERB + ING] (present progressive form) shows an action that is happening now or is going to happen in the future.

    I am taking a WPE prep course this semester.

    Next Monday Brooke is going on an excavation.

Past Continuous Action

WAS + [VERB + ING] shows an action that was in progress at a certain time in the past.

    Amanda was reading her textbook all night.

    Last night the students were studying their grammar rules.

Style Matters:

Though helping verbs have an important role in writing, remember that academic writing should stay in the active voice. Thus, if you can avoid using “be” verbs by allowing the main verb to describe the action in your sentence, let the main verb stand alone.  For example, in the following sentence: Amanda was reading her textbook all night, we are describing an action that was in progress at a certain point in the past while another action took place.  Can you see how this construction may be helpful when illustrating another point?  However, Amanda read her textbook all night tells of the same event, yet the meaning slightly changes due to the missing helping verb. Now take a look at your own writing. Do you use helping verbs excessively?  If so, try rewriting a sentence that uses a “be” helping verb by letting the main verb stand alone. Is the meaning the same? How would your reader best understand your intent?

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This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.

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