With Modal verbs, our view on time may become as with two hour glasses. Modal verbs do not narrate the real time. Their manner is relative to real time.
We also could say that Modal verbs mediate between the grammatical Time and Aspect. The name “modal” comes from the Latin word “modus”, meaning an extent or measure.
In CHAPTER 2, we viewed the verb form “will” in our Fields of Time. The form did not belong clearly with the grammatical PRESENT, PAST or FUTURE. The same is true about all Modal verbs.
The PRESENT form of the verb WILL can map on the FUTURE.
The PAST form can tell about the PRESENT, as well.
“We will be hiking” (FUTURE);
“We would like to have some tea now” (PRESENT).
Some grammars will have Modals for defective verbs. They do not have all the three forms. Let us compare other verbs.
REGULAR VERB: TO TRAVEL
INFINITIVE to travel
1ST FORM travel 2ND FORM traveled 3RD FORM traveled
DYNAMIC PARTICIPLE traveling STATIVE PARTICIPLE traveled
IRREGULAR VERB: TO WRITE
INFINITIVE to write
1ST FORM write 2ND FORM wrote 3RD FORM written
DYNAMIC PARTICIPLE writing STATIVE PARTICIPLE written
MODAL VERB FORMS:
1ST FORM may 2ND FORM might
1ST FORM can 2ND FORM could
1ST FORM shall 2ND FORM should
1ST FORM need 2ND FORM (needed) 3RD FORM (needed)
1ST FORM must 2ND FORM (must)
1ST FORM will 2ND FORM would
Modal verbs can be truly unlike other verbs.
They do not have infinitive forms.
We do not say * “to may”.
They do not have participle forms.
We do not say * “mayed” or * “maying”.
They do not use will for their grammatical FUTURE.
We do not say * “will may”.
Their forms can have more than one grammatical time reference.
We could say,
“You might think about reading this all”.
MIGHT is the PAST form of the verb MAY, yet it refers to the grammatical PRESENT here.
We also could say,
“As children, they loved the old library,
where they might read as well as play.”
MIGHT is the PAST form of the verb MAY,
and it refers to the grammatical PAST.
We may envisage Modals in logical categories.
POTENTIALITY PROBABILITY CONTINGENCY CERTAINTY
Our potential is what we are actually able to do, or something we have real prospects to become able to do. Something potential is something that actually might come into existence.
It belongs mostly with guesswork. Humans happen to consider probability in theory making. Possibility is a close synonym. We can have it for equivalent with probability, in grammar.
Let us think about Madame Règle. She has the potential to have lunch at Latimer Sauf’s restaurant every day. He always has a table for his friends, and she has enough money.
However, her work with Paris haute couture designers happens to keep her over the lunchtime. Her coming to lunch is probable, but not certain.
It requires both potentiality and probability. Let us think about Monsieur Sauf’s birthday. Madame Règle WILL come to meet him. It is certain.
Some books will have something contingent for something likely, and some will say it is something unlikely to happen. We tend to tell likelihood by how often something takes place.
Madame Règle has a resolve here. Words have etymologies. The adjective “contingent” comes from the Latin words “tangere, tangens”. The words meant “to touch”, “touching”.
Madame Règle has contingency for something touching on, dependent on something else. Let us mind that cause and effect may not depend on simple factors.
Contingency needs a potential for something to happen. What is certain has to be probable.
When we speak about own POTENTIAL, we mostly say what we are able to do. To tell own resolves, we most often use the verbs CAN or MAY.
We are able to do things only in probable circumstances, even if our abilities are outstanding. CAN and MAY are our most prominent words for PROBABILITY, too.
MAY is going to sound a bit more formal. CAN is going to be more colloquial. CAN happens to express probability greater than MAY.
CONTINGENCY may require that we adapt own resolves to circumstances. Our Modal verbs to express the extent of that requirement are NEED, SHOULD, OUGHT TO, and HAVE TO.
We always use OUGHT TO with the infinitive: “we ought to learn”, “we ought to work”.
American English differs from British much, on the verb SHALL. In American, the verb serves to prefigure resolves for potential circumstances:
The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the State where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the trial shall be at such place or places as the Congress may by law have directed.
Feel welcome to
GRAMMAR NOTES ON THE US CONSTITUTION.
We are not likely to use the Modal verb WILL for CONTINGENCY, if we love independence (!)
We people yet can be CERTAIN about own perception and volition. The Modal verbs WILL and MUST can express a strong prediction or resolve.
Let us now think about Modal verbs and the grammatical time. So far, all our contexts allowed second forms, as COULD or MIGHT, to work for the PAST grammatical time.
However, is it enough to put a Modal verb into its second form, to express the grammatical PAST?
21. You MIGHT use the phone;
(a tentative suggestion in the PRESENT.)
21a. You COULD use the phone;
(a tentative suggestion in the PRESENT.)
Modal second forms may express polite offers and yet stay in the grammatical PRESENT.
Modal forms generally, PAST or PRESENT, influence the language register. The register concerns the styles we use when we speak or write on various occasions. In simple words, it has a lot to do with being polite.
CAN is very colloquial in its register for suggestions. It could be rude for a suggestion, when we directly address someone we do not know.
Let us imagine we ask,
22. CAN I open the window?
The answer might be
22a. You certainly are capable of that,
but you are not allowed to.
CAN is not offensive when we simply state on POTENTIAL or provide information — in other words, we talk about an objective circumstance, rather than a subjective resolve.
23. Bald eagles CAN fly above clouds.
We might use the verb can as in example 23, during formal talks. Modal mediation is important in American English.
If we want to negotiate or provide guidance, we should not misinterpret Modal verbs for uncertainty or passiveness.
Modal verbs are a matter of good style, tact, and logic, not only in business talks. When we say something would not work for us, we are as assertive as when we say it is not going to work.
Please mind, content as here is not a form of address: I am not writing specifically to any person or persons.
Let us see how Modal verbs can make us sound more objective.
23a. Bald eagles fly above clouds.
(We would be likely to say this about a specific area where bald eagles live and fly above clouds, and most likely when we are in that area.)
24. Modal verbs CAN express varying degrees of potential, probability, contingency, and certainty.
(The guidance applies generally, about whatever Modal context).
In American as well as British English, we mind the Negative Interrogative. Requests with forms as CAN’T or COULDN’T imply that consent is expected.
(We would not readily assume approval from someone like a never-possibly-happy-person, would we?)
25. COULDN’T I use your car?
(I expect you are going to allow it.)
When someone is not a never-possibly-happy-person, we can ask,
26. COULD I use your car (please)?
PAST forms may change the degree of Modality we express. Let us mark this degree in cubes. We can think about mountaineering.
27. Careful with this handle, it MAY break.
27a. Careful with this handle, it MIGHT break.
28. Careful with this handle, it CAN break.
28a. Careful with this handle, it COULD break.
We could name the handle in the picture above a quickdraw. We yet can use the examples here to learn flexibility. Modal forms will require that we are flexible.
We can begin with simple words. There are multifarious handles in this world. We may need one to break a can of food open, when hiking.
A can, the noun, may mean a metal container. The verb to can may mean putting goods in cans. The auxiliary can is a Modal verb form.
Words always can have more than one meaning.
Let us compare other Modal verbs for their degrees of CONTINGENCY or CERTAINTY, respectively.
29. The can WILL / HAS TO / MUST break open.
30. The can SHOULD / OUGHT TO break open.
31. The can NEEDS to break open.
Modal forms HAVE TO and MUST differ in sense, not in degree of Modality.
32. You HAVE TO take care of the handle;
(such are the circumstances).
33. You MUST take care of the handle;
(my common sense says so).
Colloquial American English has phrases as
HAVE GOT TO
HAS GOT TO,
for CERTAINTY as well as CONTINGENCY.
Let us remember that colloquial uses are colloquial because they depart from the standard. We have a note on human mental lexicons in SUB-CHAPTER 6.3. We keep away from informal uses in official contexts.
If we are not in a formal situation, and we want to talk common sense, we can say,
34. You GOTTA take care of the handle.
Common sense does not mean we should not have any sense of humor.
34a. That HAS TO / GOTTA be the handle.
Colloquial language is mostly banned from schools. We may need some acquaintance with it to comprehend everyday speech, however.
Informally, the word “stuff” may mean “talk”, “matter”.
34b. We HAVE TO / GOTTA learn to handle the Modal stuff.
Much of the above is a strong challenge on our arrow cues: how do we use them with Modal verbs?
We can think about the target grammatical time.
35. Alice COULD read when she was five.
36. Ten years ago, he got a loan, and COULD start his new business.
For the target grammatical time, we think about the context, not only the language forms. Linguistically, our time reference can be tacit.
Please compare SUB-CHAPTER 6.2.
7. I haven’t seen her today.
7a. I didn’t see her today.
The time reference is tacit, as the word “today” does not decide on grammar.
American English, as any natural language, allows paraphrase. Let us see our target time and frame with paraphrased Modal verbs.
35a. She was able to read.
36a. He was able to open his new business.
What strategy can we develop for the Modal PAST? We can use syntactic structures. Feel welcome.
CHAPTER 9.1. MODAL SYNTAX, GRAMMATICAL PRESENT OR PAST