Talk:English modal verbs

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We need a total rewrite[edit]

Most grammar articles on wikipedia are fairly good, but this whole article is entirely wrong in so many ways. It misses some absolutely necessary characteristics of English modality. Also, it completely ignores the purpose of modals and the dual nature of auxiliary modals (will/would, shall/should, must, etc) and verbal modals (be going, have, ought, etc).

I will try to rewrite this when I have time. --Drew.ward (talk) 17:28, 23 August 2009 (UTC)


Is anyone unhappy with this page? Ken H 13:31:04, 2005-08-04 (UTC) YES, BUT I DON'T HAVE TIME TO REWRITE IT. THAT'S WHY I LOOKED THIS UP IN THE FIRST PLACE. MARY

I've rewritten the page completely; I didn't add the content you added below, because I wasn't familiar with all of it and as you didn't put it in the article itself, I couldn't be sure that you considered it to be of article quality. Feel free to add any of the below information (though please make sure that a bit of information isn't already in the article before you go ahead and add it). Ruakh 21:32, 4 August 2005 (UTC)
Excellent! (DO went invisible on me. Thanks.) In turn I was just being careful/tentative about the bigger picture, since I am a new member. I'm still trying to ascend to conformance with you and others. I left queries at User_talk:Ruakh. Ken H 02:07:15, 2005-08-05 (UTC)
You seem to be off to a good start. :-)
One thing to keep in mind is that unless there's a serious problem with an article (e.g., an NPOV dispute), the editing process should be "as transparent as possible" to the reader. For example, comments about how an article can be improved should go on a Talk page. (Or, if you're okay with their only being seen by people who are either editing the article or looking at the edit history, then you can put them in the article within <!-- -->, which prevents them from appearing when someone simply views the article.)
Odd - to make a process "as transparent as possible" means that the casual observer should be able to see every detail of the history of the process: in this case, every detail of the entire history of the editing of the article. I do believe that someone has written down the opposite of what he really meant. Let me explain. If in teaching a mathematics course, I give a transparent explanation of a theorem, that means one that is such that any reasonable person can immediately "see" the meaning of the proof. It would be obvious to all, and nothing would be hidden. What the previous writer meant was that the details of the editing process should be hidden - not transparent. (talk) 05:40, 15 October 2008 (UTC)
BTW, I've moved Grammatical modality rev to be a subpage of your talk page, which is considered the appropriate place for works-in-progress. (Alternatively, you could have made it a subpage of Talk:Grammatical modality; but either way, it shouldn't be in the Article namespace.)
Anyway, welcome to Wikipedia! I hope you enjoy it here. :-) Ruakh 02:51, 5 August 2005 (UTC)

The necessary background for understanding English modal auxiliary verbs[edit]

This background requires some knowledge of the use of modal auxiliary verbs in other Germanic languages, and the recognation that almost all of the grammar of English is Germanic (with a little French adopted) - though much simplified in many cases, and I think that this is a good thing, a good feature of English. However, trying the understand these English modal auxiliary verbs, in a complete vacuum, with no knowledge of how they work in those other languages, is practically a hopeless endeavor. For example, there has been some argument about "must" vs. "have to". If one knows about the German modal auxiliary verb "muessen" and how it works, then it is immediately clear that "must" and "have to" mean the same thing. Likewise, there has been some argument about "can" vs. "to be able to". In German, there is the modal auxiliary "koennen" that covers both of these meanings, and all becomes crystal clear. It is also necessary to understand which of the verbs in English are in the subjunctive mood - which is a real problem, since of the two forms of the subjunctive mood in Germanic languages, one of them is weak in English, and the other one is just a vestage of what it used to be. Thus, so many people do not understand that the verb "may" has a modal auxiliary use, and it also has a vestigal subjunctive mood use. In English, the primary use of it is as a modal auxiliary, but the other one ought to be at least be mentioned. The sentence, "May I sleep soundly tonight and wake up feeling well tomorrow," has "may" used as a subjunctive verb, and not as a modal auxiliary. There is no permission being asked. (talk) 05:59, 15 October 2008 (UTC)

Revision 3 in progress[edit]

The initial eleven (and most common) English modals or modal auxiliary verbs are below.

will      shall      may        can                  strong present tense forms
would     should     might      could                gradiently weak past forms
do        must       ought (to)                                  non-conforming

The words dare and need were used as modals in the past. They appear less often in contemporary English. Please look in any good dictionary (or in Wiktionary) to find all of the roles that these verbs will serve.

A modal auxiliary verb helps the following bare infinitive express a meaning or an idea, changing its manner or agency, and thereby the mode or mood of the sentence's subjectpredicate relationship.

In English, modal auxiliary verbs are defective; for example, they do not have participle forms (no -ing or -ed endings) or infinitives (dare and need are modern exceptions).

They busily express the future, the owed, the possible, permitted, required, ability, politeness or uncertainty, and much more. Speech and language make continuous use of moods on a spectrum from the absolutely vague to the irresistable and done. Order, wish, everything we can think or try. Any utterance has a discoverable modality or mood. Modals exhibit <add feature set: gradience; distributional facts; [internal structure/op char/c-cmd/infinitive-issues]; ... >. They are frequently and powerfully used at all levels of speaking and writing, or justice and play.

Mr. Wales will have a party.                                 deontic mood or future tense
Mr. Wales would be delighted if you came to his party.     conditional mood or politeness 
You must come.                                                     directive mood or plea

The types of mood provided for these sentences (above right) are very incomplete, since modals can express a multiplicity of ideas.

Fix this page further per Ruakh's suggestions addressing modal DO and other entries.

For more information on the other helper verbs be, do and have, etc., see the page on auxiliary verbs.

There are 10 English modal auxiliary verbs:
  • shall
  • will
  • can
  • may
  • should
  • would
  • could
  • might
  • must
  • ought

These all share the same properties: 1. They are not inflected 2. They are never combined 3. They do no use 'do' in questions, negatives and certain other functions 4. They have no participle form 5. They have no inifinitive form

'have to' breaks all of these rules because it is not a modal auxiliary; Examples: 1. 'she has to come' 2. 'she will have to come' 3. 'Does she have to come?', 'She doesn't have to come', 'She does have to come' (emphasized form) 4. 'she had to come' 5. 'to have to come is very annoying'

'Do' is also not a modal auxiliary; it is an auxiliary, but not a modal auxiliary. Examples: 1. 'She does like cheese' 4. 'She did like cheese'

'Do' does not apply a modal meaning to the verb, its purpose is to form negative, question and emphasized verb structures, not modal structures. It may be that 'some grammarians' consider 'do' to be a modal auxiliary. However the world's population of TEFL teachers and course book writers would all disagree with you. You could also refer to Michael Swan - Practical English Usage, 3rd Edition which also does not list 'do' as a modal auxiliary. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:25, 27 July 2008 (UTC)

what about need and dare? Aren't there modal verbs? —Preceding unsigned comment added by ArthurArthur (talkcontribs) 10:09, 28 April 2009 (UTC)

Further references[edit]

Academic references:

  • Palmer, F.R. Mood and Modality.
  • Jesperson, Quer, Jackendoff, Chomsky (2), Givon, Wurmbrandt, etc.

Daren't, needn't and will[edit]

  • Daren't and needn't are still pretty common in colloquial British English in my experience; the full forms dare not and need not are less so. More (non-original!) research is needed here.
  • Will, being non-modal, doesn't really belong here, although it would belong in a list of defective verbs. What do people think about a redirect from "English defective verbs"?

Hairy Dude 01:43, 28 May 2006 (UTC)

That's a crazy statement about will. Of course it is an English modal auxiliary verb, and it is the primary modal auxiliary that we used to indicate the future tense. I corresponds directly with the German modal auxiliary verb "woellen", which is used for the same purpose - to form the future tense.
Understanding how modal auxiliaries are used in other Germanic languages is a tremendous stride towards understanding them in English. Trying to understand them completely from within English is trying to understand them in a vacuum. (talk) 06:09, 15 October 2008 (UTC)
By the way, there is a form of "dare not" that is practically archaic, but sometimes supposedly used in remote and backwoods locations: "darest". For example, "You darest suck raw eggs for breakfast," means "You dare not suck raw eggs for breakfast." (talk) 06:12, 15 October 2008 (UTC)
On a similar note to daren't and needn't, the negative contractions for might and had better, being mightn't and hadn't better are quite common in North America, if somewhat formal or literary. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:08, 19 October 2008 (UTC)
The problem is that there is both a modal will and a non-modal will, meaning approximately to want, to desire (see here, as a verb). Both derive from Old English willan, but they have significantly diverged in use over the years. The non-modal will conjugates ("He wills", "He willed"), is used as a to infinitive and in other constructions that modal verbs are not, and otherwise behaves as a first order verb. The article should probably mention this somewhere, even though I fully agree that will used as a modal verb is far more common than in its other sense, and thus it belongs here.--Wlerin (talk) 13:14, 8 January 2015 (UTC)


Is it the past tense of might? You can find it in some books 200 years or older. 02:55, 6 June 2006 (UTC)

Nope. The OED gives mought as an archaic form of the modal auxiliary might, but does not suggest it had any additional past-tense sense. (BTW, mought had a few other uses as well, all archaic.) Ruakh 11:58, 6 June 2006 (UTC)

Must / have to[edit]

The article says "have to is synonymous with must". But surely, "doesn't have to" doesn't mean the same thing as "must not"? -- 05:03, 4 February 2007 (UTC)

Correct: in some of the auxiliary verbs, the negative attaches semantically to the infinitive; "must not X" (or "mustn't X") means "must not-X", not "not-must X", and is therefore equivalent to "has/have to not X", not "do/does not have to X". In others, it attaches semantically to the auxiliary; "cannot X" (or "can't X") means "not-can X", not "can not-X" (though the rare "can not X", as in "You can do it, or you can not do it; it's all the same to me", does mean "can not-X"). In yet others, it's ambiguous; "may not X" can easily mean either one, with a slight difference in intonation drawing the distinction (e.g., in "it may not be obvious", it's "may not-X", while in "you may not leave here", it's "not-may X"). The article should probably discuss this, eh? —RuakhTALK 05:51, 4 February 2007 (UTC)

I wouldn't accept "have to" as a modal verb any more than I would accept "be able to" or "be going to". They may have similar meanings to "must", "can", or "will" but they have a wider grammar.

  • She can read books
  • She is able to read books
  • She has been able to read books since last year
  • She must be able to read books
  • She has to be able to read books
  • She has had to be able to read books to do his job
  • She will have to be able to read books
  • She is going to have to be able to read books
  • She has been going to have to be able to read books for some time, though luckily for her the surprise test hasn't happened yet

I would only see three modal verbs (can, must and will), none of which appear in the final line because English modal verbs are defective. --Henrygb 15:24, 22 February 2007 (UTC)

I completely agree as would any good grammar book - 'have to' is modal, but it is not usually considered an auxiliary. In English, auxilary verb structures do not use 'do' to form negatives, questions and certain other functions, whereas 'have to' does:
  • She doesn't have to come
  • Does she have to come?

There are other reasons: modal auxiliaries are not inflected (as in 'she has to come'), and they do not have a participle form (as in 'she had to come'). I am amazed at the level of inaccuracy of this Wikipedia article. You may as well list 'like to' (and a hundred other verbs) as a modal auxiliary, as it is also modal and has the same grammatical form as 'have to'; —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:11, 27 July 2008 (UTC) i don't understand you! Edit - I reckon have to is a semi-modal verb. Can we add it to the list? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 13:10, 30 January 2009 (UTC)

used to[edit]

"Used to" probably should be included as a modal as well. It exhibits most of the necessary properties, except that its negation is "didn't used to" rather than "used to not"; compare with "ought to" vs. "ought not". Jepflast (talk) 05:58, 10 April 2008 (UTC)

"Used not to" and "Usedn't to" are sometimes found, at least in British English, although they may be a little old-fashioned. (talk) 07:28, 19 May 2008 (UTC)

"Didn't use to" is not "non-standard" as claimed in this article. Furthermore, "didn't used to" as used in the above post is not correct. Any respectable dictionary will confirm these points. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 09:19, 22 August 2010 (UTC)

"Used to" should definitely be included as a modal. It is not a periphrastic modal like "have to" or "be able to." It is even pronounced differently. Compare:
This knife is used to cut bread.
Before I bought it, I used to cut bread with a butcher knife. --Janko (talk) 12:37, 26 September 2012 (UTC)

Double modal[edit]

I've added a new section on the double modal - phrases like might could that you hear in "Hillbilly English". Not generally considered correct grammar, but there's no real reason why not, other than that they sound clumsy. Weasel Fetlocks (talk) 17:39, 28 June 2008 (UTC)

What language do you speak? What exactly is 'Hillbilly English'? You seem to imply that people in rustic areas get their grammar wrong in ways like this. Can you find one single example of a native English speaker making this mistake? Native speakers never make mistakes like might could, they say might be able to or might have been able to. (talk) 19:09, 27 July 2008 (UTC)
Well hello there. Phrases such as "might could" are indeed used by some native English speakers, particularly as you say in some rural areas, especially parts of America. I referenced an article by entomologists discussing its usage in the article footnotes when I added this section. You may consider the double modal to be a "mistake", and that is your prerogative, but it is a legitimate and notable subject for inclusion. As such I have reverted your edits. Wikipedia articles on English grammar should acknowledge the diversity of spoken English, and not adhere to one fixed conception of standard English. Weasel Fetlocks (talk) 00:24, 28 July 2008 (UTC)
I have now added, as requested, an example of the double modal as used by a native speaker - not by mistake but intentionally in the lyrics of a song. Weasel Fetlocks (talk) 01:38, 28 July 2008 (UTC)
Added another citation too, from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English website. If you put "double modal" into a search engine, you will find any number of articles & papers on the subject. The Wikipedia article content on the double modal is factual, neutral, well researched & referenced. Please do not remove it again. Weasel Fetlocks (talk) 11:53, 28 July 2008 (UTC)
Re 'Hillbilly English' (a term which I used here informally & non-judgementally), I have added a link to the article on Southern American English, which addresses the subject in greater detail, including mention of double modals. It is definitely worth reading, for anybody interested in colloquial grammar variations. Weasel Fetlocks (talk) 16:48, 2 August 2008 (UTC)

I changed some wording in this section, as it seemed biased towards a prescriptivist viewpoint. The wording I used I feel better exemplifies a more neutral viewpoint. My goal was to indicate that in contemporary prescriptivist usage double modals are seen as improper, but in descriptivist grammar and linguistics there is nothing grammatically or pragmatically wrong with them (which is why I replaced instances of "grammatical(ly)" throughout the section).JohnDillinger43 16:27, 11 September 2010 (UTC) —Preceding unsigned comment added by JohnDillinger43 (talkcontribs)

Editing of page[edit]

I've done some pretty heavy editing of this page. If there's anything that I've done that anyone dislikes, please let me know.

We should consider merging a lot of the material from Shall and will into this article. Count Truthstein (talk) 23:42, 3 January 2009 (UTC)

I question whether "to do" should be discussed on this page. It is not a modal verb, although it is an auxiliary verb, so maybe the material should be put there instead. I also question whether it is correct that "dare" and "need" have ever been used as modal verbs outside the negative. "He dare not do it" sounds alright but *"he dare do it" and especially *"he need do it" just sound wrong to me.

We should also consider whether there is a better home on Wikipedia for discussion of forms like "ought to" and "had better" because again, these aren't modal verbs. Count Truthstein (talk) 22:39, 12 May 2009 (UTC)

negative of ought[edit]

Putting aside whether "ought" is a real modal verb, there seems to be some disagreement among reference books and websites as to the negative. Even as a native speaker (and teacher), I'm not sure because I never use this form. But is the negative "ought not to"/"oughtn't to," as in this article, or "ought not"/"oughtn't," as in several other sources? In other words, is there a "to" in You ought not to eat all the cookies.? I'm not convinced this article is correct as stands. – Zavtrakat (talk) 01:00, 17 August 2009 (UTC)

"Need" in the negative"[edit]

In the negative, "need" may be used as a modal, as in "You need go no further." Should not "need" be included in the lists (talk) 21:09, 2 October 2009 (UTC)


Is it worth pointing out that the modal verbs do not have a distinctive 3rd person singular form (I shall/he shall, we will/she will, you may/it may, they can/he can, etc.)? This is less odd for the preterite derived forms, but it is distinctive for the present derived forms. --Rumping (talk) 14:29, 27 November 2009 (UTC)

Returning modality[edit]

I just reverted the changes by User:Count Truthstein that removed modality from the article, as well as made a few other changes. modality is a necessary part of the concept of modal verbs (note how, in fact, the words have the same root). Removing modality here is similar to if you went to Biology and removed the links and discussion of life--that is, modality is a critical component of what makes something a modal verb. A good example within the article itself is "used to", which appears to be a modal verb in the way it acts, but doesn't technically change modality, so it only sort-of fits this category. A few other changes were also incorrect, such as the use of the word "traditional" English, which is both vague and wrong, because it doesn't consider which "tradition" you're talking about, how far back you're going, etc. Qwyrxian (talk) 22:07, 10 April 2011 (UTC)

I removed references to "modality" because I don't think it has a clear meaning. Modal verbs are a subclass of verbs which are used to impart a variety of meanings, not just necessity ("must") or possibility ("may"). The defining characteristic of a modal verb is the collection of grammatical contexts it can be used in, not their meaning. "Used to" is not categorized as a modal verb for this reason. Would you claim that "would" is not a modal verb when it is used to mean "used to"? Count Truthstein (talk) 22:38, 10 April 2011 (UTC)
Moreover, if we go back to the version of this page last September, [1], the word "modality" did not occur once. I was removing language which had been added to the article since then. Count Truthstein (talk) 22:42, 10 April 2011 (UTC)
I don't have access to any of my linguistics texts, but I still think I disagree; perhaps, though, we are disagreeing about whether to take a semantic view rather than a syntactic view of the class, but perhaps there's more going on. I'll see if I can find anything at home that will help inform the issue (I, unfortunately, don't have access to a library to check out the references included in the text). Qwyrxian (talk) 23:30, 10 April 2011 (UTC)

A relatively new and increasingly common use of "would" not documented in this article[edit]

I spend a considerable amount of time on Wikipedia correcting a relatively new, increasingly common and (to me) extremely irritating use of "would" with the base form of a verb in place of that verb's normal preterite form. For example, just today I made the following corrections, one right after the other in the same article:

original text corrected text
The first Zenith TV set would appear in 1939. The first Zenith TV set appeared in 1939.
The company would eventually go on to invent such things as .... [which has other problems too] The company invented such things as ....

I don't know what cesspool this use of "would" plus the base verb in place of the preterite crawled out of (TV, maybe?), or when it happened, but it is recent and it has spread like herpes in a bordello. I'm pretty sure there are WP editors who never use the preterite if they can stick a "would" in its place (pun unintended, but it's funny anyway).

Obviously I hate this construction, but since it has become so popular so fast, it really should be documented in this article.

It is similar to the past time use, indicating a later event from a viewpoint in the past, but it is used when such a construction is not required:

"The first Zenith TV set would appear in 1939"
is not the same as
"In the 1960s, people thought we would all be driving hovercars by the year 2000",

the example given in that section.

"The first Zenith TV set appeared in 1939" gives exactly the same information but more simply and clearly. All changing "appeared" to "would appear" accomplishes is to give the statement an odd, vaguely disorienting sense that the writer is trying to relocate the reader back into the past when the events happened, which (in the form of a flashback) may be appropriate on TV or in a movie, but not in an encyclopedia. The objective of an encyclopedia is to provide information, not to induce a You Are There! experience in the reader.

Nor is it a conditional or subjunctive use of "would", because there is no dependent clause expressed or implied in either example. It also is not the past imperfective use of "would", described in the article:

Would can also be used for the imperfective aspect in past time. In the sentence "Back then, I would eat early and would walk to school...." "would" signifies not the conditional mood, but rather, repeated past actions in the imperfective aspect (specifically, habitual aspect) ....

"First" and "in 1939" pretty well rule out the possibility that the writer is talking about the repeated or habitual appearance of a TV set, like a ghost in a haunted house.

Clearly I'm a prescriptivist as far as language goes, but that's only marginally relevant to the point I'm trying to make. That point is that there is a very common but relatively new modal, indicative use of the word "would" instead of a verb's preterite that should be documented in this article but is not.--Jim10701 (talk) 00:30, 23 May 2012 (UTC)

I don't think that this is new - it may be inappropriate or unencyclopaedic language in some places, but I'd have to see the context to judge. Typing "would be invented" and "would be discovered" into a search engine brings up examples. Count Truthstein (talk) 20:24, 23 May 2012 (UTC)
I've done a bit of hunting and I've found the following from 1937:
"In December, 1863, amid great rejoicing, land was broken at Omaha, Nebraska, from which a bridge would later be built across the Missouri River to Council Bluffs." (Mighty Engineering Feats: Clear and Concise Descriptions of Ten of the Greatest American Engineering Feats By Harriet Salt (p.20). ([2]). This is not habitual or reported speech.
Here is another example: [3] Count Truthstein (talk) 20:44, 23 May 2012 (UTC)
This is "Future in the Past" tense. Just because it doesn't have a pompous Latinate name doesn't make it any less a real and valid part of English. It's *not* a simple preterite, because the events described happened after, in the future of, the time in focus, but before the present. Defacing the text by changing them to simple past loses information. Addendum: It seems it does have a pompous Latinate name after all, the Past Prospective.--Wlerin (talk) 13:28, 8 January 2015 (UTC)

Recent edits to the article[edit]

User:Espoo made the following edits: [4]. I've got a few concerns about them: for example, the use of "would" in "I wish he would come tomorrow" is not conditional. Also, the history of subjunctive forms in English doesn't need to be as prominent. I can understand why the section heading "Subjunctive use" was removed (as "subjunctive" properly labels a form, and historically the conditional uses were subjunctives as well). How about a heading called "Remoteness" to cover "I wish he would" and any other examples where preterite forms are required (I can't think of any at the moment). Count Truthstein (talk) 07:21, 10 June 2012 (UTC)

Past tense[edit]

How modals are (e.g., have to /had to) and are not (ought to / -) inflected to be used in the past tense needs discussion.02:37, 10 March 2014 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk)

Used not to vs. did not use to[edit]

The article claims that "She did not use to do that" is more common than "She used not to do that." First of all, I'm not a native speaker, so I don't know; but my personal feeling is that (at least in formal written English) the latter is indeed more common. Maybe the former is more colloquial? Or am I reading too many old-fashioned books? (By the way, I do agree that in a question Did she use to dot that? is more common that Used she to do that?) — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 03:21, 19 March 2014 (UTC)

In my experience as a native speaker of American English, the former is far more common than the latter, even in formal contexts. Though apparently British speakers use the latter more frequently than Americans, to my ear, the latter sounds more dialectal. So no, I don't get the sense that the former is more colloquial than the latter. Furthermore, I have never even heard anyone say "used she to do that?" It sounds totally grammatically incorrect to me, archaic at best. Keep in mind that American English is just one form of the language, so maybe they do use these forms in other countries, whether as colloquialisms or as standard usage, but to me, "she used not to do that" and "used she to do that?" sound utterly bizarre. Latinamnonvoco (talk) 11:23, 26 June 2014 (UTC)

Do they inflect?[edit]

In this article it is said that English modal verbs do not inflect. Is this statement true? I think that some of the verbs listed here as distinct modal verbs are just inflected forms (past tense, but also some kind of subjunctive forms) of other modal verbs, namely could (from can), should (from shall), would (from will) and might (from may). They are, of course, irregular, but no more so than past tense forms of many other English verbs. Or how do current textbooks of English grammary classify them: distinct verbs or inflected forms? I think it is far more natural to concider as inflected forms. -FKLS (talk) 07:56, 20 March 2015 (UTC)

After it says that they do not inflect, it says "except..." and goes on to say something that is supposed to mean what you just said. W. P. Uzer (talk) 08:26, 20 March 2015 (UTC)