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Linguistic Definition of Modal

Modals in English grammar are words that express modality. Modality is the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitudes and opinions of the speaker including possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency.

Modal is a grammatical function.

The grammatical form that can function as the modal in English grammar is the verb phrase. The nine auxiliary verbs, or modal verbs, that can function as the modal are the verbs can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. The five quasi-modal verbs that function as modals are ought (to), had better (had best), used to, dare, and need.

Modals are constituents of the verb phrase. Modals can appear only in verb phrases functioning as predicates.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. Mood and modality. In The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world, 176-242. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Palmer, F. R. 1979. Modality and the English modals (Longman Linguistics Library). London: Longman.
Palmer, F. R. 1990. Modality and the English modals (Longman Linguistics Library), 2nd edn. London: Longman.
Palmer, F. R. 1986. Mood and modality (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Palmer, F. R. 2001. Mood and modality (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics), 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Palmer, Frank. 2003. Modality in English: Theoretical, descriptive, and typological issues. In Roberta Facchinetti, Manfred G. Krug & Frank Robert Palmer (eds.), Modality in contemporary English (Topics in English Linguistics), 1-17. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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