My dilemma is that most of my grammar knowledge goes back a half century, and I want to give current and up to date advice to new English language learners. The opening sentence of this post shows an example of current, as opposed to, old school punctuation. The adjective, up to date, would require hyphenation, using old school guidelines.

I'm not sure if helper verb is a term still in vogue. I researched the term on the Net, but the problem is that web sites rarely give their publishing date. New English speakers making the effort to learn the language deserve accurate answers. I don't want to give obsolete advice. Is helper verb still the correct term for a verb preceding a short infinitive?

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    If we're to believe Google Books, "helper verb" had some currency in the 40s. But relatively speaking, "auxiliary verb" has always been way more common. Nov 19, 2014 at 13:35
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    This should be migrated to Linguistics. Nov 19, 2014 at 13:52
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    @Jim: I don't have the relevant specialised knowledge regarding who used/uses what terminology in this area. All that graph shows is that one form has always been much more common than the other, but for all I know some (or even many) grammarians may distinguish different meanings for those terms. Or there might be a third term that's actually preferred by the professionals. Nov 19, 2014 at 13:54
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    @FumbleFingers It is indeed tricky because it will depend on which linguistic framework you use and which language you're talking about. There are some languages with only a handful of true (inflected) verbs, some with coverbs, some with this and that. But I think it's safe to say though that "helper" is a primary school alternative to "auxiliary". Nov 19, 2014 at 13:57
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    @curiousdannii: That seems likely to me. Though I must admit, without access to a spellchecker I might well choose to use "helper" purely because I'm confident I can at least spell that one right! :) Nov 19, 2014 at 14:04

2 Answers 2


Nowadays we call them 'auxiliary verbs'. The name 'auxiliary' has a similar meaning to 'helper'. However, we now recognize these words as a grammatical class of verb with specific properties, not just because they precede a main verb, because they have some modal meaning, or because we can't use them on their own. The properties just mentioned may apply to other verbs which aren't in this group, and which don't have the same predictable grammar. Also one particular verb is now recognised to be in this auxiliary category - but doesn't have to occur with any other verb. This is the verb BE.

The important central properties which characterise auxiliary verbs are sometimes referred to as NICE properties. NICE is an acronym for:

  • Negation
  • Inversion
  • Code
  • Emphasis


Auxiliary verbs are necessary in English to make negatives with not. They also have a tendency to contract with the word not. If there is no auxiliary in the positive version of the sentence we use the dummy auxiliary DO:

  • The giraffes can't stand up.
  • We don't know what to do.
  • They mustn't leave.
  • The elephants aren't happy.

In the sentences above we see the negative particle occurring attached to the auxiliaries. When not contracted it must occur directly after the auxiliary in canonical negative sentences. Notice how the verb BE is fulfilling this function even though there is no following verb.


There are several instances in English when we need to invert the subject and auxiliary verb. The most obvious is in yes/no questions. Obviously we can only do this if there is an auxiliary! When there is no normal auxiliary in the declarative counterpart sentence we use the auxiliary DO:

  • Can the giraffes stand up?
  • Do we know what to do?
  • Must they leave?
  • Are the elephants happy?


Sometimes we delete material following an auxiliary verb leaving the auxiliary to stand in for the missing material. In answer to the questions above we can give the following answers. The missing material is in brackets:

  • They can! [stand up]
  • We do. [know what to do]
  • They must! [leave]
  • They are. [happy]


When wanting to add positive emphasis to a sentence, underlining that the sentence is true, we add emphasis by stressing the auxiliary, thereby giving it a full vowel (and preventing any contractions with subject pronouns). If there is no auxiliary in the canonical sentence we need to use the auxiliary DO:

  • The giraffes can stand up.
  • We do know what to do.
  • They must leave.
  • They are happy.

This grammatical class of words has two sub-categories. One includes the auxiliaries BE and HAVE which we use to form different aspects and voices - and the dummy auxiliary DO, which stands in in the present simple and past simple constructions, which don't have an auxiliary in canonical declarative sentences. The second group are the modal auxiliaries, of which there are nine central members and a few marginal verbs whose membership is debatable. The central members are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must.

This group of modal auxiliaries are probably the ones remembered by the Original Poster. These verbs plus DO, when followed by another verb, are always followed by an infinitive without to. They have other grammatical properties such as not being able to occur in standard English constructions with other modal verbs (i.e. you never have more than one per clause), not having inflected forms such as past participles, -ing forms, third person singular inflections and so forth. Depending on which grammar you subscribe to, you may feel that could is the past form of can and so forth, in which case you would regard them as inflecting for tense.

These verbs are most useful when regarded as a grammatical class of verbs distinct for their syntactic properties. It's not overly useful to lump in other words that we use to talk about necessity and obligation with them (I'm thinking of constructions such as have to used to talk about necessity and so forth, or going to in the going to future). The reason for this is that if we keep our classification of these verbs strictly syntactic and not semantic, we can very accurately predict their behaviour and offer clear and simple observations to students. These are a grammatical family of words, not a semantic one.

I agree with Papa Poule that the terminology used to describe these words is not important. However, the reason why they are the same type of words is very important for an understanding of English grammar.( If we want to be able to talk to other people studying the language though, then current terminology will, of course, be useful.)

Hope this helps!

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    Your short thesis helps a lot. You went above the call of duty in the thought & effort you put into your answer. I especially appreciated the NICE acronym. Thank you so much.
    – JimM
    Nov 19, 2014 at 19:26
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    Another thought, I'll be returning to this answer for future reference. Very well composed.
    – JimM
    Nov 19, 2014 at 19:32
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    I'm not sure, but traditional grammar might have also considered "GET" in passive constructions to be a helper verb? Of course, "GET" doesn't do subject-aux inversion, and so, wouldn't be considered an auxiliary. But then modern linguists use the term "auxiliary" in, er, their own way. For instance, they seem to be considering "going" in "BE going to Verb" constructions as an auxiliary (shrugs). (cont.)
    – F.E.
    Nov 19, 2014 at 21:40
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    (cont.) And then, there's some lost souls (er, :D ) who want to consider the infinitival marker "to" as an auxiliary (though it don't do subject-aux inversion either); but to consider that "to" to be an auxiliary would be acknowledging that a grammatical marker has evolved backwards into an auxiliary "verb", which means that this would be one of the rare exceptions in the way stuff typically happens in languages. imo. :)
    – F.E.
    Nov 19, 2014 at 21:42
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    @F.E. Well, it would be, but the predecessor of the putative auxiliary would have been a preposition, not a marker. Putatively :) Nov 20, 2014 at 13:47

The term “helper/helping” might be "less professional," “old-school,” "primary school," and/or even "kindergarten level" compared to “auxiliary,” but that doesn’t detract one bit from its value as a clear and useful description of what these verbs do, so if you must use only one term, choose the one that best helps your students to visualize and eventually own the concept.

(In fact, teachers should always try to use terms/strategies/methods that best address the individual learning styles and needs of each individual student, and not the latest terms/strategies/methods simply because they happen to be in vogue this month.)

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    So how exactly are these verbs helping? ;) Nov 19, 2014 at 15:05
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    Helping verbs help the main verb to extend its meaning. They add detail to how time is conveyed in a sentence & are used to help create the most complicated verb tenses in English:the progressive & the perfect aspects. They also help to convey complicated shades of meaning like expectation/permission/probability/potential/obligation/direction. In modern linguistics, this class of verbs is called auxiliary verbs. The meanings of these two terms are interchangeable. I just thought that it might be easier for Jim to explain how they "helped" than how they "auxilliarized" main verbs.@curiousdannii
    – Papa Poule
    Nov 19, 2014 at 15:48
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    Auxiliary verbs are used to mark different constructions, like various forms of have marking perfect constructions, or special classes like modal auxiliary verbs, which have special syntax and meaning. They also occur in many idioms, often unpronounced. They do not, however, "help the main verb extend its meaning". The meaning is not part of the verb, and saying a meaning is "extended" defines absolutely nothing. "Helping verbs" is kindergarten level; talking down to students is not a helpful educational strategy. Telling them facts is. If you know them, of course. Nov 19, 2014 at 18:09
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    @JohnLawler Implying that students, who for whatever exceptional reason(s) they might have for needing individualized, less than Oxford-level, grammar instruction, are being treated as if they were morons by those attempting to provide that instruction is, in my opinion, perhaps "flag-worthy." Too sensitive, am I? Well I’d say “exceedingly” instead of “too,” but yes I am when it involves children with exceptional needs and the dedicated souls (definition #6) who successfully teach them every day using strategies that, if familiar with them, you would probably not approve.
    – Papa Poule
    Nov 19, 2014 at 20:11
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    Everybody is different and speaks a different language; then we all try to pass for English speakers (or whatever language it sposta be). School deals with writing, not talking; native speakers already know how to talk. Any students who can understand the facts should be taught them; students who aren't ready for them -- and in a lifetime of teaching I've never met any -- should be taught some other subject they are ready for. But just the facts; not the fanciful disneyfied illustrations about helping verbs spreading their meaning over the field. Nov 19, 2014 at 23:05

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