Modal verb

Modal verb

A modal verb (also modal, modal auxiliary verb, modal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality -- that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation.[1]:p.33 The use of auxiliary verbs to express modality is particularly characteristic of Germanic languages.



Modal auxiliary verbs give more information about the function of the main verb that follows it. Although having a great variety of communicative functions, these functions can all be related to a scale ranging from possibility ("may") to necessity ("must"). Within this scale there are two functional divisions:

  • epistemic, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood, and certainty); and
  • deontic, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including ability, permission, and duty)

The following sentences illustrate the two uses of must:

  • epistemic: You must be starving. (= "It is necessarily the case that you are starving.")
  • deontic: You must leave now. (= "You are required to leave now.")
  • ambiguous: You must speak Spanish.
    • epistemic = "It is surely the case that you speak Spanish (e.g., after having lived in Spain for ten years)."
    • deontic = "It is a requirement that you speak Spanish (e.g., if you want to get a job in Spain)."

Epistemic modals can be analyzed as raising verbs, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verbs.

Another use of modal auxiliaries is to indicate "dynamic modality", which refer to properties such as ability or disposition.[2] Some examples of this are "can" in English, "können" in German, and "possum" in Latin. For example, "I can say that in English," "Ich kann das auf Deutsch sagen," and "Illud Latine dicere possum."

List of Germanic etymological relatives

The table below lists some modal verbs with common roots in English, German and Dutch. English modal auxiliary verb provides an exhaustive list of modal verbs in English, and German verb#Modal verbs provides a list for German, with translations. Dutch verbs#Irregular verbs gives conjugations for some Dutch modals.

Words in the same row of the table below share the same etymological root. Because of semantic drift, however, words in the same row may no longer be proper translations of each other. In addition, the English and German verbs will are completely different in meaning, and the German one has nothing to do with constructing the future tense. These words are false friends.

In English, the plural and singular forms are identical. For German and Dutch, both the plural and singular form of the verb are shown.

Etymological relatives (not translations)

English German Dutch
can können, kann kunnen, kan
shall sollen, soll zullen, zal
will wollen, will willen, wil
must müssen, muss moeten, moet
may mögen, mag mogen, mag
tharf[3] dürfen, darf durven, durf

The English could is the preterite form of can; should is the preterite of shall; and might is the preterite of may. (This is ignoring the use of "may" as a vestige of the subjunctive mood in English.) These verbs have acquired an independent, present tense meaning. The German verb möchten is sometimes taught as a vocabulary word and included in the list of modal verbs, but it is actually the past subjunctive form of mögen.

The English verbs dare and need have both a modal use (he dare not do it), and a non-modal use (he doesn't dare to do it). The Dutch verb durven is not considered a modal (but it is there, nevertheless) because its modal use has disappeared, but it has a non-modal use analogous with the English dare. Some English modals consist of more than one word, such as "had better" and "would rather".[4]

Some other English verbs express modality although they are not modal verbs because they are not auxiliaries, including want, wish, hope, and like. All of these differ from the modals in English (with the disputed exception of ought (to)) in that the associated main verb takes its long infinitive form with the particle to rather than its short form without to, and in that they are fully conjugated.

Morphology and syntax

Germanic modal verbs are preterite-present verbs, which means that their present tense has the form of a vocalic preterite. This is the source of the vowel alternation between singular and plural in German and Dutch. Because of their preterite origins, modal verbs also lack the suffix (-s in modern English, -t in German and Dutch) that would normally mark the third person singular form:

normal verb modal verb
English he works he can
German er arbeitet er kann
Dutch hij werkt hij kan

The main verb that is modified by the modal verb is in the infinitive form and is not preceded by the word to (German: zu, Dutch: te). There are verbs that may seem somewhat similar in meaning to modal verbs (e.g. like, want), but the construction with such verbs would be different:

normal verb modal verb
English he tries to work he can work
German er versucht zu arbeiten er kann arbeiten
Dutch hij probeert te werken hij kan werken

In English, main verbs but not modal verbs always require the auxiliary verb do to form negations and questions, and do can be used with main verbs to form emphatic affirmative statements. Neither negations nor questions in early modern English used to require do.

normal verb modal verb
affirmative he works he can work
negation he does not work he cannot work
emphatic he does work hard he can work hard
question does he work here? can he work at all?
negation + question does he not work here? can he not work at all?

(German never uses "do" as an auxiliary verb for any function; Dutch uses "do" as an auxiliary, but only in colloquial speech)

In English, modal verbs are called defective verbs because of their incomplete conjugation: they have a narrower range of functions than ordinary verbs. For example, most have no infinitive or gerund.

Evolution of modals

Deontic (agent-oriented) usages of modals tend to develop earlier than epistemic uses, and the former give rise to the latter.[5]:pp.192-199 For example, the inferred certainty sense of English "must" developed after the strong obligation sense; the probabilistic sense of "should" developed after the weak obligation sense; and the possibility sense of "may" and "can" developed later than the permission or ability sense. Two typical sequences of evolution of modal meanings are:

  • internal mental ability → internal ability → root possibility (internal or external ability) → permission and epistemic possibility
  • obligation → probability

Modals in non-Germanic languages

Hawaiian Creole English

Hawaiian Creole English is a creole language most of whose vocabulary, but not grammar, is drawn from English. As is generally the case with creole languages, it is an isolating language and modality is typically indicated by the use of invariant pre-verbal auxiliaries.[6] The invariance of the modal auxiliaries to person, number, and tense makes them analogous to modal auxiliaries in English. However, as in most creoles the main verbs are also invariant; the auxiliaries are distinguished by their use in combination with (followed by) a main verb.

There are various preverbal modal auxiliaries: kaen "can", laik "want to", gata "have got to", haeftu "have to", baeta "had better", sapostu "am/is/are supposed to". Unlike in Germanic languages, tense markers are used, albeit infrequently, before modals: gon kaen kam "is going to be able to come". Waz "was" can indicate past tense before the future/volitional marker gon and the modal sapostu: Ai waz gon lift weits "I was gonna lift weights"; Ai waz sapostu go "I was supposed to go".


Hawaiian, like the Polynesian languages generally, is an isolating language, so its verbal grammar exclusively relies on unconjugated verbs. Thus, as with creoles, there is no real distinction between modal auxiliaries and lexically modal main verbs that are followed by another main verb. Hawaiian has an imperative indicated by e + verb (or in the negative by mai + verb). Some examples of the treatment of modality are as follows:[7]:pp. 38–39 Pono conveys obligation/necessity as in He pono i na kamali'i a pau e maka'ala, "It's right for children all to beware", "All children should/must beware"; ability is conveyed by hiki as in Ua hiki i keia kamali'i ke heluhelu "Has enabled to this child to read", "This child can read".


French, like other Romance languages, has no modal auxiliary verbs; instead, it expresses modality using conjugated verbs followed by infinitives: for example, pouvoir "to be able" (Je peux aller, "I can go"), devoir "to have an obligation" (Je dois aller, "I should go"), and vouloir "to want" (Je veux aller "I want to go").

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is an isolating language without inflections. As in English, modality can be indicated either lexically, with main verbs such as yào "want" followed by another main verb, or with auxiliary verbs. In Mandarin the auxiliary verbs have six properties that distinguish them from main verbs:[8]:pp.173-174

  • They must co-occur with a verb (or an understood verb).
  • They cannot be accompanied by aspect markers.
  • They cannot be modified by intensifiers such as "very".
  • They cannot be nominalized (used in phrases meaning, for example, "one who can")
  • They cannot occur before the subject.
  • They cannot take a direct object.

The complete list of modal auxiliary verbs[8]:pp.182-183 consists of

  • three meaning "should",
  • four meaning "be able to",
  • two meaning "have permission to",
  • one meaning "dare",
  • one meaning "be willing to",
  • four meaning "must" or "ought to", and
  • one meaning "will" or "know how to".

See also



  1. ^ Palmer, F.R., Mood and Modality, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  2. ^ A Short Overview of English Syntax (Rodney Huddleston), section 6.5d
  3. ^ Obsolete or dialectal, confused with and replaced by dare (OED, s.v. †tharf, thar, v. and dare, v.1).
  4. ^ Ian Jacobs. English Modal Verbs. August 1995
  5. ^ Bybee,Joan; Perkins, Revere; and Pagliuca, William. The Evolution of Grammar, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994.
  6. ^ Sakoda, Kent, and Jeff Siegel, Pidgin Grammar, Bess Press, 2003.
  7. ^ Alexander, W. D., Introduction to Hawaiian Grammar, Dover Publ., 2004
  8. ^ a b Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thomson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, 1989.

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  • modal verb — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms modal verb : singular modal verb plural modal verbs linguistics a verb such as can , might , should etc that is used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, permission, or intention …   English dictionary

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