The Grammarphobia Blog

Verbal assistance

Q: A former boss once vehemently argued with me that the verb “assist” was used correctly in these examples: “They were asked to assist Dave learn math” and “I will need to assist you write that memo.” I had learned that “assist” followed by a noun needed either “in” or “to” before a verb. I was sure he was incorrect, but he was the boss, so I tried to find other ways to write sentences rather than write them incorrectly.

A: There are several ways to use “assist” correctly, but your former boss’s isn’t one of them. Here are the correct meanings and uses.

(1) to be present (this takes the preposition “at”), whether as a participant or supporter or just a spectator: “He will assist at the wedding.”

(2) to give assistance to (without a preposition): “Please assist that elderly woman.” … “His guide dog assisted him.”

(3) to give assistance (with a preposition): “His wife assisted in his success.”

(4) to give assistance (with the infinitive form of a verb): “She assisted to get him promoted.”

The two sentences you give are examples of the fourth kind, where “assist” should be followed by an infinitive: “They were asked to assist Dave to learn math” and “I will need to assist you to write that memo.”

I believe your former boss was using “assist” the way “help” is normally used. When “help” is followed by an infinitive, it doesn’t need “to.”

For instance, we can say either “He helped me to move,” or “He helped me move.” In both cases, “move” is in the infinitive.

But with “assist,” the infinitive must be accompanied by the preposition “to,” as in “He assisted me to move.”

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