In this sentence below:

“They may be coming sooner than we expected”.

Is the word ‘be’ in this sentence a helping verb?
Is the word ‘coming’ in this sentence a verbal?
What tense is this sentence in?

I think it’s in progressive tense but it doesn’t match up with how any of the progressive tenses are formed so I’m a bit confused.


2 Answers 2


The verb phrase in this sentence is "may be coming"

English verbs can be formed as "modal verb + infinitive"

He may play tennis.

The infinitive can be a progressive "be playing" or perfect "have played" form

He may be playing tennis.

The meaning of the progressive form is surprising: "He may play tennis" is a statement giving permission. "He is allowed to play tennis". But the continuous form "He may be playing tennis" states a possibility "It is possible that he is playing tennis."

In your sentence, the tense is sort of irrelevant because it's a modal verb "may" (it's the present tense, but modal verbs don't always have past tenses). The "verbal" is the phrase "may be coming". And it expresses possibility:

It is possible that they are coming sooner than expected.

  • I feel confused by the answer.thought Jan 5, 2021 at 21:40
  • I thought an infinitive was to + base verb or an split infinitive. Are you saying that the word “be” in the sentence I wrote is an infinitive? Jan 5, 2021 at 21:51
  • Is there a site where I could learn more about those things? Jan 5, 2021 at 21:56
  • 1
    "be" is a bare infinitive. Modal expressions usually use modal verb+bare infinitive. Loads of sites, at different levels. Search for "modal verbs". British Council, for example learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/…
    – James K
    Jan 5, 2021 at 23:33

As well as what James K has said, another way to think about it is that you're taking a simple statement of fact:

They are coming sooner than expected

and using may to talk about the chance this might happen instead:

They may be coming sooner than expected

As James said, may is followed by the infinitive, so are becomes be. The rest of the sentence stays the same, because really all you're doing is changing the verb phrase so it sounds less like a sure thing, and more like something that's possible.

You could say may come instead, but that's the may form equivalent to will come. They may be coming is equivalent to they are coming. Both express the future, but in subtly different ways, and the may forms reflect those meanings (just with an element of "there's a chance" added!)

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