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A modal verb (also modal, modal auxiliary verb, modal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality. The use of auxiliary verbs to express modality is a 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 (can) to necessity (must). Within this scale there are two functional divisions: one concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including ability, permission and duty), and the other (shall not included) concerns itself with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true, including likelihood and certainty: must = absolute (often moral) obligation, order, requirement, necessity; can/could = physical or mental ability; may/might = permission, option, choice; will = intention in 1st person, volition in 2nd and 3rd persons; and shall/should = in 1st person objective though not moral obligation, no choice, as in: One day I shall die: we all shall die one day; in 2nd and third persons shall implies an incumbent obligation, destiny (It shall come to pass) or a command, decree, necessity imposed by the speaker, as in: A meeting shall take place on the last Friday of every month or a promise, namely that the speaker is stating his obligation to another party that an action or event take place, as in: You shall go to the ball, Cinderella. However, if a speaker states: I will let you go to the ball, Cinderella, in stating his intention, he is, in this instance, also making a promise.

As regards the modal auxiliary verbs shall/will, it is misleading to suggest either that these verbs are "future tense auxiliary verbs" that are used to form a future tense in English where shall is used for the first person and will for second and third persons (a "rule" of "traditional" grammar), thereby forming a compound "simple future" or "pure future" tense, or that shall and will are interchangeable in modern English. This latter belief no doubt arises from the fact that the contracted forms of shall and will are identical ( 'll), as are the contracted forms of the past/subjunctive of shall and will, namely should and would ( 'd), which contractions having led to the usage of will/would for all persons in demotic English and most particularly in American English.

Shall and will have distinct meanings, but some of them sometimes overlap, as with I/we statements combining promise (a statement of obligation) and intention (a statement of willingness). With I/we questions used as suggestions or as requests for advice, only shall/should is possible: "Shall/Should I do something?" fundamentally asks if I am obliged to another party to do something. (cf. sollen in German: Was soll ich tun? [What shall I do?]) In most other cases, "will" is usable. Will in 2nd and 3rd persons can indicate a sure prediction if the statement/question is marked for future time (When will he arrive? - He will arrive tomorrow) or future time is understood in context (Do you think he will come? – Sure he will come), the certainty of prediction being marked by the speaker's belief that he knows the volition of the subject of the modal verb; if no futurity is marked or understood in context, then will, but not shall, carries meanings of (a) general deduction, (b) highest probability, (c) habit, or (d) habit-power, e.g.: (a) If George is British, he will be quite conservative in his opinions; (b) Did the caller have a British accent? – Then that will have been George (would have been George is still highly probable but there is a slight doubt implied by the past form of will that, in this context, is subjunctive in function; must have been George is also a high probability statement but it is a logical conclusion: the speaker is logically obliged to believe that the caller was George); (c) He will always call me when I'm having lunch; (d) This bottle will hold at least two pints.

Most modal auxiliary verbs have two distinct interpretations, epistemic (expressing how certain the factual status of the embedded proposition is) and deontic (involving notions of permission and obligation). 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 form of modal auxiliary is the verb indicating ability: "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."

Sometimes, the use of the modal auxiliary verbs varies in positive and negative statements. For example, in English, we have the sentence pair, "You may do that," and "You may not do that." However, in German, these ideas are expressed as "Sie dürfen das tun," but "Sie müssen das nicht tun." The latter looks as if it would translate into English as "You must not do that," but it is more typically translated as "You may not do that."


This table 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.

Words in the same row share the same etymological root. Because of semantic drift, however, words in the same row may no longer be proper translations of each other. For instance, the German verb "dürfen" is closer in meaning to the English verb "may" (for asking for or granting permission) than to its cognate "dare". 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.

Please note that the words in this list are not translations of each other. (See above.)

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
dare dürfen, darf durven, durf

The English could is the past tense of can; should is the past tense of shall; and might is the past tense 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. An example of the subjective use of "may" in English is in the sentence "That may be, or may not be," meaning "That could be true, but maybe it is not."

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. Other English modal verbs include want, wish, hope, and like. All of these differ from the main modals in English (i.e. most of those in the table above) in that they take the particle to in the infinitive, like all other English verbs (may; to want), and are followed by to when they are used as a modal (may go; want to go). Some may be more than one word, such as "had better" and "would rather."[1]


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 always require the auxiliary verb do to form negations and questions, and can be used to form emphatic affirmative statements. Modal verbs never use this auxiliary 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 does do it
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)

Modal verbs are called defective verbs because of their incomplete conjugation: they have a narrower range of functions than ordinary verbs.

See also



  1. [ Ian Jacobs. English Modal Verbs. August 1995]

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



modal verb

modal verbs

modal verb (plural modal verbs)

  1. (grammar) An auxiliary verb whose primary function is to express mood.

Usage notes




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