Modal verb
A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb
Auxiliary verb
In linguistics, an auxiliary verb is a verb that gives further semantic or syntactic information about a main or full verb. In English, the extra meaning provided by an auxiliary verb alters the basic meaning of the main verb to make it have one or more of the following functions: passive voice,...

 that is used to indicate modality
Linguistic modality
In linguistics, modality is what allows speakers to evaluate a proposition relative to a set of other propositions.In standard formal approaches to modality, an utterance expressing modality can always roughly be paraphrased to fit the following template:...

 -- that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation. The use of auxiliary verbs to express modality is particularly characteristic of Germanic languages
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...



Modal auxiliary verbs give more information about the function of the main verb
A verb, from the Latin verbum meaning word, is a word that in syntax conveys an action , or a state of being . In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive...

 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 verb
Raising verb
In linguistics, raising is a form of argument control in which an argument that belongs semantically to a subordinate clause is realized syntactically as a constituent of a higher clause...

s, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verb
Control verb
In linguistics, a control construction is a clause that contains a main clause , the predicate of which has two complements — an embedded clause complement and a nominal complement that acts as the semantic argument of the main clause and of the embedded clause...


Another use of modal auxiliaries is to indicate "dynamic modality", which refers to properties such as ability or disposition. 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
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

, German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 and Dutch
Dutch language
Dutch is a West Germanic language and the native language of the majority of the population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname, the three member states of the Dutch Language Union. Most speakers live in the European Union, where it is a first language for about 23 million and a second...

. English modal auxiliary verb
English modal auxiliary verb
In the English language, a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb. The key way to identify a modal verb is by its defectiveness...

 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
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 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 friend
False friend
False friends are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects that look or sound similar, but differ in meaning....


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 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".

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 verb
Defective verb
In linguistics, a defective verb is a verb which is missing e.g. a past tense, or cannot be used in some other way that normal verbs come. Formally, it is a verb with an incomplete conjugation. Defective verbs cannot be conjugated in certain tenses, aspects, or moods.-Arabic:In Arabic, defective...

s 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. 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

Hawaiian Creole English

Hawaiian Creole English is a creole language
Creole language
A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable natural language developed from the mixing of parent languages; creoles differ from pidgins in that they have been nativized by children as their primary language, making them have features of natural languages that are normally missing from...

 most of whose vocabulary, but not grammar, is drawn from English. As is generally the case with creole languages, it is an isolating language
Isolating language
An isolating language is a type of language with a low morpheme-per-word ratio — in the extreme case of an isolating language words are composed of a single morpheme...

 and modality is typically indicated by the use of invariant pre-verbal auxiliaries. 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 language
The Hawaiian language is a Polynesian language that takes its name from Hawaii, the largest island in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language of the state of Hawaii...

, like the Polynesian languages
Polynesian languages
The Polynesian languages are a language family spoken in the region known as Polynesia. They are classified as part of the Austronesian family, belonging to the Oceanic branch of that family. They fall into two branches: Tongic and Nuclear Polynesian. Polynesians share many cultural traits...

 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: 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 language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

, like other Romance languages
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

, 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:
  • 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 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

  • English modal auxiliary verb
    English modal auxiliary verb
    In the English language, a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb. The key way to identify a modal verb is by its defectiveness...

  • Grammatical mood
    Grammatical mood
    In linguistics, grammatical mood is a grammatical feature of verbs, used to signal modality. That is, it is the use of verbal inflections that allow speakers to express their attitude toward what they are saying...

  • Linguistic modality
    Linguistic modality
    In linguistics, modality is what allows speakers to evaluate a proposition relative to a set of other propositions.In standard formal approaches to modality, an utterance expressing modality can always roughly be paraphrased to fit the following template:...

  • Modal logic
    Modal logic
    Modal logic is a type of formal logic that extends classical propositional and predicate logic to include operators expressing modality. Modals — words that express modalities — qualify a statement. For example, the statement "John is happy" might be qualified by saying that John is...

  • Semi-modal
    Semi-modals are multi-word constructions that function like modal verbs. Examples include:* had better* have to* ought to* be going to* used to...

  • List of English auxiliary verbs

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.