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Modal Auxiliary Verbs: The Grammar of Modal Verbs in English

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb in English that express modality. Modality can be defined as the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitude of the speaker, which includes opinions about possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency. The nine English modal auxiliary verbs are:

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

The following sections explain and exemplify the grammar of the nine modal auxiliary verbs including the position of modal verbs in verb phrases in English.

Neutralization and Defectiveness of Modal Verbs

Unlike prototypical English verbs, modal verbs are both neutral and defective. The neutralization of modal verbs refers to the fact that modal verbs lack a separate third person singular simple present tense form. To form the simple present of most English verbs for third person singular subjects, the suffix -s or -es is affixed to the end of the base form of the verb. For example:

  • cry – cries
  • eat – eats
  • help – helps
  • march – marches
  • swallow – swallows
  • wish – wishes

Modal verbs lack a third person singular simple present form. For example:

  • can – *cans
  • could – *coulds
  • may – *mays
  • might – *mights
  • must – *musts
  • shall – *shalls
  • should – *shoulds
  • will – *wills
  • would – *woulds

Similarly, the defectiveness of modal verbs refers to the fact that modal verbs lack non-tensed forms. Prototypical English verbs have four to six forms depending on the regularity of irregularity of the verb. The forms of a prototypical verb are a base form, an infinitive, a present participle, a past participle, a simple present form, a third person singular simple present form, and a simple past form. For example:

  • become – to become – becoming – become – become – becomes – became
  • cut – to cut – cutting – cut – cut – cuts – cut
  • drink – to drink – drinking – drunk – drink – drinks – drank
  • hire – to hire – hiring – hired – hire – hires – hired
  • meet – to meet – meeting – met – meet – meets – met
  • talk – to talk – talking – talked – talk – talks – talked

Modal verbs lack all but a base form. For example:

  • can – *to can – *canning – *canned – *can – *cans – *canned
  • could – *to could – *coulding – *coulded – *could – *coulds – *coulded
  • may – *to may – *maying – *mayed – *may – *mays – *mayed
  • might – *to might – *mighting – *mighted – *might – *mights – *mighted
  • must – *to must – *musting – *musted – *must – *musts – *musted
  • shall – *to shall – *shalling – *shalled – *shall – *shalls – *shalled
  • should – *to should – *shoulding – *shoulded – *should – *shoulds – *shoulded
  • will – *to will – *willing – *willed – *will – *wills – *willed
  • would – *to would – *woulding – *woulded – *would – *woulds – *woulded

* An asterisk indicates an incorrect form.

The Position of Modal Verbs in Verb Phrases

Like other auxiliary verbs, modal verbs appear before the head of the main verb functioning as the predicate. However, unlike other auxiliary verbs, the modal verb always appears at the beginning of the verb phrase in the initial position. For example:

  • simple active → modal + base – will study
  • perfect active → modal + have + past participle – will have studied
  • progressive active → modal + be + present participle – will be studying
  • perfect-progressive active → modal + have + been + present participle – will have been studying
  • simple passive → modal + be + past particle – will be eaten
  • perfect passive → modal + have + been – past participle – will have been eaten
  • progressive passive → modal + be + being + past participle – will be being eaten
  • perfect-progressive passive → modal + have + been + being + past participle – will have been being eaten

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb in English grammar. Both native English speakers and English language learners must learn the grammar, which includes the lack of conjugated forms and the position in verb phrases, of modal verbs in order to fully use and understand verbs the English language.

References

Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Palmer, F. R. 1990. Modality and the English modals. London: Longman.

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