We're coming up on National Grammar Day (it's March 4th, as in "march forth"), so we asked our resident linguist Neal Whitman to tackle a topic sure to warm the cockles of grammar-lovers' hearts: helping verbs! But how many are there? And can you fit them all into a catchy song?

As a rule, my sons aren't thrilled to talk about grammar with me. Comments like "Wait—is this a linguistics thing?" and "Mom, Dad's talking grammar again!" have found their way into the conversation at times. So I usually restrain myself. But one day I happened to be thinking, out loud, about auxiliary verbs. In English, these are primarily the forms of be, forms of have, forms of do, and the modals such as may, might, and would. I mentioned them to Doug, using the less technical name helping verbs, and Doug surprised me by enthusiastically jumping into the conversation.

"I know the helping verbs!" he said. Two years earlier, his fifth-grade English teacher had taught the class a song that had "all 23 of them," and they'd all learned it, and he and his friends could still sing it even now. He obliged me with a rendition. To the tune of "Jingle Bells", he sang:

Helping verbs, helping verbs, there are 23!
Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be,
Have, has, had, do, does, did, will, would, shall and should.
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!

You can find dozens of videos of this song on YouTube, sung as a solo, or by groups of school kids, in their classrooms and in their homes. This one is a pretty good rendition.

Songs and other mnemonics are popular ways to teach parts of speech in closed classes. Parts of speech like nouns and verbs are said to be in open classes; that is, new nouns and verbs are added all the time. You can't teach what a noun is by having your students memorize a song containing every noun in the English language. 

On the other hand, pronouns are a good example of a closed class. Look at all the failed attempts through the centuries to add a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun to the language. For a part of speech that includes only a couple dozen words, an extensional definition can be much easier to teach than the defining characteristics of the class, especially since closed classes tend to be made up of "function words" that don't have easily stated meanings. Hence, the quick uptake of the acronym FANBOYS to help memorize the coordinating conjunctions, and several versions of "Yankee Doodle" re-lyricized with a list of the English prepositions.

The trouble is, even closed classes have fuzzy edges. Compare the lyrics of the "Yankee Doodle" preposition songs and you'll find that there's variation in whether they include without, outside, except, and other prepositions. Some of them even include the object-taking adjective like. And none of them that I've found include the more exotic versus. As for coordinating conjunctions, Geoff Pullum on Language Log made a good case that the word slash is a new conjunction, when used in phrases like We need a corkscrew slash bottle opener. Even that stubborn singular gender-neutral pronoun gap has been filled by some speakers in Baltimore with yo. 

Coming back to helping verbs, there's room to disagree here, too. Alongside the songs, teaching videos, and other resources that speak of "the 23 helping verbs," there are also some that have 24 as the canonical number. Elizabeth O'Brien on her Grammar Revolution website goes with 24, singing them to the tune of the chorus of "The Witch Doctor". You know: Ooh, ee, ooh ah ah, ting, ting, walla walla bing bang," sung twice. It goes like this:

Be am is are was
Were been
Being have has had
Could should must may might
Must can
Will would do did

You'll notice this is only 22 verbs. She ran out of bars to finish up her list, so she appends a two-note coda, an octave lower, singing "Does, having!"

In fact, that last verb, having, is the one that lists of 24 include and lists of 23 exclude. They include being, but not having. It's probably because, unlikehave, has, and had, the participle having doesn't participate in the formation of any verb tenses. Have and has help form the present perfect tense (e.g. have paid), and had helps form the past perfect (had paid), but all you can make with having is adjunct phrases like having paid, as in Having paid my fine, I was free to go.

This oversight is what comes of thinking about verbs in their individual forms (e.g. do, does, did), instead of by lexeme ("forms of the verb do"). I realized I was even guilty of it myself when I checked Grammar and Style at Your Fingertips, by Lara M. Robbins, and was surprised to find the form done in her list. You might be thinking that done doesn't belong, because it's used as a helping verb in nonstandard versions of English, such as African American English: I done paid already. Of course, just because it's not a helping verb in Standard English doesn't mean it's not a helping verb at all. Furthermore, even limiting ourselves to Standard English, done is a helping verb in British English, showing up regularly in elliptical verb phrases such as I have paid more than you have done. (In American English, we would say I have paid more than you have, and leave it at that. For more on this across-the-pond difference, read Lynne Murphy's post on Separated by a Common Language.)

As it happens, Robbins's list of not 23, not 24, but 25 helping verbs still managed to leave out having. It made up the deficit with ought (to), another helping verb regularly omitted from the rolls.

That's not all. In Elements of English Composition, published in 1868, James Robert Boyd even includes let, presumably for hortative sentences such as Let's go! In the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston and Geoff Pullum include the "aspectual verb" used (to). They also includedare and need. Their evidence? Take the formulaic phrases such as How dare you?She needn't bother, and Need I say more? Classifying dare and need in constructions like these would neatly account for their participating in subject-auxiliary inversion (dare you, need I), the lack of third-person singular inflection (she needn't instead of *she needs not), and the contraction of need not to needn't, something that ordinary verbs just don't do.

In my opinion, the best grammar sources regarding helping verbs are those that don't say there are only 23, or 24, or 25. When they list them, they list them as "some of the most common helping verbs", and list them by lexeme instead of by individual form, which shortens the list considerably. I recommend C. Edward Good's A Grammar Book for You and I ... Oops, Me! It lists 16 verbs: be, do, have, plus 13 modals, in which includes the usual 11 from the songs, plus the others included in CGEL. And as a bonus, he argues for (had) better as helping verb.

And if you're looking for a teaching song for helping verbs that has 24 verbs instead of a mere 23, and which fits them neatly and logically into the existing measures of a well-known tune, I recommend this song, to the tune of "Babyface", by a very close friend of mine:

Helping verbs!
Am, is, are, was, and were are helping verbs!
Be, being, and been are three more helping verbs.
They're useful words!
Will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, can, and could
We love those helping verbs!
Do, does, and did and have and having, has, and had.
You're gonna love the ways
They help you form verb phrases,
The amazing helping verbs!

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 2nd 2012, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Tanja S. (Arlington, VA)
Hmm. The conjugation of the big three (do, be, and have) make it cumbersome indeed. Why not simply: do/be/have are dummy helpers (carry no meaning, they are just tense markers) and modals c2w3s2m3 (can/could/will/won't/would/shall/should/may/might/must (which carry meaning), with two additional 'meaning' modals which don't follow the rigid structure ('have to' and 'ought to') ? This has always resonated with students for me.
Friday March 2nd 2012, 2:32 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Was always and will be.
I'll save those renditions so that I will be able to check back time to time.
Your son will follow you eventually.
Friday March 2nd 2012, 11:32 PM
Comment by: Deirdre O. (Wentworth Falls Australia)
helping verbs = passive voice.
Saturday March 3rd 2012, 6:09 AM
Comment by: Morris K.
I am fond of showing off--any time the opportunity presents itself--the memory work that sticks with me after so many years out of high school. John Milton's "On His Blindness" is one...the other are the helping verbs that I can recite with lightning speed, indelible(ized) in my subconscious by a fine teacher of English, "Lippy" Louise Lipscomb, Wichita Falls High School, circa 1955.
Sunday March 4th 2012, 12:20 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
Well done for the mnemotechnics form.

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