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Aug 17 2016
by Elizabeth Robinson

How to Replace Helping Verbs

By Elizabeth Robinson - Aug 17 2016

Writers in countless professions - English teachers, publishers, query writers and more always urge that students learn to employ strong, descriptive verbs in place of the elementary-level "helping verbs." This allows for a more intelligent, powerful piece, be it essay, resume or short story. After all, if your verb were strong, why would it need a helping verb in the first place?

This is a basic tutorial to get you in the right mindset. I don't list every conceivable synonym in the English language, but I have a few examples to get you started on the right track. 


What is a helping verb?

A helping verb is a natural aspect of the English language. You use them all the time, though you may not realize it. They give off a more casual impression, and they're extremely common, leading many English teachers to despise seeing them over and over again in an essay. 

There are only a set number of helping verbs in the English language: to be (am, is, were, being, been), to have (had, has), to do (does, did), shall, should, may, might, must, to be able to (can, could). There's even a song listing every helping verb and its conjugation arranged to the tune of Jingle Bells. After five minutes and a Youtube search, you can know every helping verb in the English language.

Example Sentences: "He is strong." "There is a song." "I can dance." "What did he do?"


Replacing "To Be"

This one used to infuriate me. English teachers hate helping verbs, but they also hate repetition. This means that you have to have more than one verb ready to replace "to be." Additionally, "to be" is used in many different ways. You can "be on a plane" or you can "be the world's greatest engineer." You can "be on your way to a party" or "be eating a sandwich." So for every way the verb "to be" can be used, you need to have two or three alternatives up your sleeve.

1. "After eating his sandwich, John was still hungry." ---> "John remained hungry."

2. "I am still writing." ---> "I still continue writing."

3. "The frog is in a pond." ---> "The frog lives in a pond." "The frog dwells in a pond." "The frog inhabits a pond."

4. "He was devastated." ---> "He felt devastated." "He gave into despair."

5. "He is the world's foremost expert." ---> "He maintains his title as the foremost expert."

Other suggestions: prevails, stands, carry on, keeps, personifies, embodies, serves to, shows, demonstrates.


Replacing "To Do"

"To do" is much easier, since half of "to do" is simply replacing a higher level verb in the first place. The only trick is replacing sentences such as, "But I did finish my homework." In some cases, like "How did he run so fast?", the verb is utterly irreplaceable without reforming the sentence. 

1. "She did her homework." ---> "She completed her homework."

2. "He always did the same trick." ---> "He always performed the same trick." 

Other suggestions: accomplish, reach, manage to, persist, spend.


Replacing "To Have"

This is the most important to replace, because "to have," in addition to describing the condition of holding or owning something, doubles as our participle verb: "I have finished," "He had given me a toy," "She has confounded us both," etc. 

1. "She has a dog." ---> "She owns a dog." "She shares her home with a dog." "She lives with a dog."

2. "She has a 3.8 GPA." ---> "She maintains a 3.8 GPA." "She boasts a 3.8 GPA." "She earned a 3.8 GPA" "She sports a 3.8 GPA."

Participle phrases can often just be replaced with their past or present tense, though this occasionally changes the tone or meaning (which is why we use the word in the first place): 

3. "You have failed me for the last time." ---> "You failed me."

4. "He has gotten away with it before." ---> "He got away with it before."

5. "All I have ever wanted." ---> "All I ever desired." 

Helping verbs are a perfectly natural and integral part of the English language. Certainly, it can be a drag if a student doesn't possess any other verbs in her vocabulary at all, but for the most part, helping verbs are used to convey a certain tone, complete a certain idiom or simplify a complex situation. But that's just my opinion. I've used plenty of helping verbs in this piece, and I don't find them to be a problem in any other form of writing - in fact, I think replacing them often sounds too melodramatic, pretentious or distracting - but the rest of the world seems to disagree. There are many cases where verbs are overused - "says," "shows," "looks" - and every employer, English teacher and professor wants students to omit different words, so hopefully this article gave you a little bit of insight into how to go about replacing such words. Teach a man a replacement, he writes for a sentence. Teach a man how to replace a word, he writes for a lifetime. 

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Elizabeth Robinson - University of Texas at Austin

I'm a sophomore at UT Austin majoring in Dean's Biology. I've loved writing since elementary school and published my first novel in high school. I love reading, writing (obviously), foreign languages, doggos, martial arts, anthropology, theater, and watching far too much YouTube. I dream of being a fiction author and geneticist after graduate school, hopefully combining my two loves to change the world. Follow me on Twitter @MetokaPublishi1, Instagram as BlackPage13, or (best option) visit my website,!

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