Modal verb

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A modal verb is a type of verb that is used to indicate modality – that is: likelihood, ability, permission and obligation.[1] Examples include the English verbs can/could, may/might, must, will/would and shall/should. In English and other Germanic languages, modal verbs are often distinguished as a class based on certain grammatical properties.


A modal auxiliary verb gives information about the function of the main verb that it governs. Modals have a wide variety of communicative functions, but these functions can generally be related to a scale ranging from possibility ("may") to necessity ("must"), in terms of one of the following types of modality:

  • epistemic modality, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood and certainty)
  • deontic modality, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including permission and duty)
  • dynamic modality,[2] which may be distinguished from deontic modality in that, with dynamic modality, the conditioning factors are internal – the subject's own ability or willingness to act[3]

The following sentences illustrate epistemic and deontic uses of the English modal verb 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.")

An ambiguous case is You must speak Spanish. The primary meaning would be the deontic meaning ("You are required to speak Spanish.") but this may be intended epistemically ("It is surely the case that you speak Spanish.") Epistemic modals can be analyzed as raising verbs, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verbs.

Epistemic usages of modals tend to develop from deontic usages.[4] 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 senses 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

Modal verbs in Germanic languages


The following table lists the modal auxiliary verbs of standard English. Most of them appear more than once based upon the distinction between deontic and epistemic modality:

Modal auxiliary Epistemic sense Deontic sense Dynamic sense
can That can indeed hinder. You can sing underwater. She can really sing.
could That could happen soon. - He could swim when he was young.
may That may be a problem. May I stay? -
might The weather might improve. - -
must It must be hot outside. Sam must go to school. -
shall - You shall not pass. -
should That should be surprising. You should stop that. -
will She will try to lie. I will meet you later. -
would Nothing would accomplish that. - We would eat out on Sundays.

The verbs in this list all have the following characteristics:

  1. They are auxiliary verbs, which means they allow subject-auxiliary inversion and can take the negation not,
  2. They convey functional meaning,
  3. They are defective insofar as they cannot be inflected, nor do they appear in non-finite form (i.e. not as infinitives, gerunds, or participles),
  4. They are nevertheless always finite and thus appear as the root verb in their clause, and
  5. They subcategorize for an infinitive, i.e. they take an infinitive as their complement

The verbs/expressions dare, ought to, had better, and need not behave like modal auxiliaries to a large extent, although they are not productive (in linguistics, the extent commonly or frequently used) in the role to the same extent as those listed here. Furthermore, there are numerous other verbs that can be viewed as modal verbs insofar as they clearly express modality in the same way that the verbs in this list do, e.g. appear, have to, seem, be able to etc. In the strict sense, though, these other verbs do not qualify as modal verbs in English because they do not allow subject-auxiliary inversion, nor do they allow negation with not. If, however, one defines modal verb entirely in terms of meaning contribution, then these other verbs would also be modals and so the list here would have to be greatly expanded.


Modals in English form a very distinctive class of verbs. They are auxiliary verbs like be, do, and have, but they are defective insofar as they cannot be inflected like these other auxiliary verbs, e.g. havehas vs. should*shoulds, dodid vs. may*mayed, etc. In clauses that contain two or more verbs, any modal that is present appears as the left-most verb in the verb catena (= chain of verbs). What this means is that the modal verb is always finite (although it is, as stated, never inflected). In the syntactic structure of the clause, the modal verb is the clause root. The following dependency grammar trees illustrate the point:

Modal trees 1'

The verb catenae are in blue. The modal auxiliary in both trees is the root of the entire sentence. The verb that is immediately subordinate to the modal is always an infinitive. The fact that modal auxiliaries in English are necessarily finite means that within the minimal finite clause that contains them, they can never be subordinate to another verb, e.g.

a. Sam may have done his homework. - The modal auxiliary may is the root of the clause.
b. *Sam has may done his homework. - The sentence fails because the modal auxiliary may is not the root of the clause.
a. Jim will be helped. - The modal auxiliary will is the root of the clause.
b. *Jim is will be helped. - The sentence fails because the modal auxiliary will is not the root of the clause.

This trait of modal auxiliaries has motivated the designation defective, that is, modal auxiliaries are defective in English because they are so limited in their form and distribution. One can note further in this area that English modal auxiliaries are quite unlike modal verbs in closely related languages. In German, for instance, modals can occur as non-finite verbs, which means they can be subordinate to other verbs in verb catenae; they need not appear as the clause root.

Other West Germanic languages

The table below lists some modal verbs with common roots in English, German, Dutch, Low Saxon, West Frisian and Afrikaans. 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 and Afrikaans, the plural and singular forms are identical. For German, Dutch, Low Saxon and West Frisian, both a (not the) plural and singular form of the verb are shown.

Etymological relatives (not translations)

English German Dutch Low Saxon West Frisian Afrikaans
can können, kann kunnen, kan könen, kann kinne, kin kan
shall sollen, soll zullen, zal schölen, schall sille, sil sal
will wollen, will willen, wil wüllen, will wolle, wol wil
must müssen, muss moeten, moet möten, mutt moatte, moat moet
may mögen, mag mogen, mag mögen, mag meie, mei mag
tharf[5] dürfen, darf durven, durf dörven, dörv doarre, doar durf

The English could is the preterite form of can; should is the preterite of shall; might is the preterite of may; and must was originally the preterite form of mote. (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, West Frisian, and Afrikaans verbs durven, doarre, and durf are not considered modals (but they are there, nevertheless) because their modal use has disappeared, but they have 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".[6]

Owing to their modal characteristics, modal verbs are among a very select group of verbs in Afrikaans that have a preterite form. Most verbs in Afrikaans only have a present and a perfect form.

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, Dutch and Low Saxon. Because of their preterite origins, modal verbs also lack the suffix (-s in modern English, -t in German, Dutch, Low Saxon and West Frisian) that would normally mark the third person singular form. Afrikaans verbs do not conjugate, and thus Afrikaans non-modal verbs do not have a suffix either:

normal verb modal verb
English he works he can
German er arbeitet er kann
Dutch hij werkt hij kan
Low Saxon he warkt he kann
West Frisian hy wurket hy kin
Afrikaans hy werk hy 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, Low Saxon to, Dutch and West Frisian te and Afrikaans om 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
Low Saxon he versöcht to warken he kann warken
West Frisian hy besiket te wurkje hy kin wurkje
Afrikaans hy probeer om te werk hy kan werk

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, Afrikaans, and West Frisian never use "do" as an auxiliary verb for any function; Low Saxon and Dutch use "do" as an auxiliary, but only in colloquial speech in Dutch, whereas in Low Saxon it is of very common use, sometimes to a point where it is comparable to the way the English makes use of it).

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.

Modal verbs in other 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.[7] 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:[8]: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 some other Romance languages, does not have a grammatically distinct class of 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 must go"), and vouloir "to want" (Je veux aller "I want to go").


Like in other Romance languages, modal verbs in Italian (verbi modali or verbi servili) together with the preterite (passato remoto) possess the perfect form (passato prossimo), where they have the peculiarity to preferably inherit the auxiliary verb from the verb they hold. Although, when used alone, the auxiliary of modal verbs is always avere ("have") – Italian language can use both avere ("have") and essere ("be") as auxiliaries. Modal verbs in Italian are the only group of verbs allowed to follow this particular behavior, forming so a distinct class.

For example, the perfect of potere ("can") is avere ("have"), as in ho potuto ("I could"); nevertheless, when used together with a verb that has as auxiliary essere ("be"), potere inherits the auxiliary of the second verb.

E.g.: ho visitato il castello ("I have visited the castle") / ho potuto visitare il castello ("I could visit the castle") – but: sono scappato ("I have escaped") / sono potuto scappare ("I could escape").

Italian modal verbs that follow this particular pattern are: potere ("can"), volere ("want"), dovere ("must"), sapere ("to be able to").

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:[9]: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[9]: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".


Spanish, like French, uses fully conjugated verbs followed by infinitives. For example, poder "to be able" (Puedo andar, "I can walk"), deber "to have an obligation" (Debo andar, "I should walk"), and querer "to want" (Quiero andar "I want to walk").

The correct use of andar in these examples would be reflexive. "Puedo andar" means "I can walk", "Puedo irme" means "I can go" or "I can take myself off/away". The same applies to the other examples.

See also


  • The Syntactic Evolution of Modal Verbs in the History of English
  • Walter W. Skeat, The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (1993), Wordsworth Editions Ltd.


  1. ^ Palmer, F. R., Mood and Modality, Cambridge University Presents, 2001, p. 33
  2. ^ A Short Overview of English Syntax (Rodney Huddleston), section 6.5d
  3. ^ Palmer, op. cit., p. 70. The subsequent text shows that the intended definitions were transposed.
  4. ^ Bybee,Joan; Perkins, Revere; and Pagliuca, William. The Evolution of Grammar, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994, pp.192-199
  5. ^ Obsolete or dialectal, confused with and replaced by dare (OED, s.v. †tharf, thar, v. and dare, v.1).
  6. ^ Ian Jacobs. English Modal Verbs. August 1995
  7. ^ Sakoda, Kent, and Jeff Siegel, Pidgin Grammar, Bess Press, 2003.
  8. ^ Alexander, W. D., Introduction to Hawaiian Grammar, Dover Publ., 2004
  9. ^ a b Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thomson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, 1989.

External links

  • German Modal Verbs A grammar lesson covering the German modal verbs
  • (in Portuguese) Modal Verbs
  • Modal Verb Tutorial
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