Chapter 9. To tell the fashion in valuable time

With Modal verbs, our view on time may become as with two hour glasses. The name “modal” comes from the Latin word “modus”, meaning an extent or measure. Modal verbs can mediate between grammatical Time and Aspect.


Modal forms do not belong clearly with the PRESENT, PAST or FUTURE. In chapter 2, we viewed the verb form WILL in the Fields of Time.


Verb form will regarding three fields


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. The picture below shows the verb to write with a few Modal forms.



We can view Modals as in a chart, to compare them with other verbs. Appendix 1 tells about verbs generally.


INFINITIVE to travel
1ST FORM travel     2ND FORM traveled     3RD FORM traveled


1ST FORM write     2ND FORM wrote     1ST FORM written




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


Second forms of the verbs need and must require some more language traveling. Part 4 shows how we can manage own notional time, also with Modal verbs.


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 reference.
We do not say * “will may”.


Their forms can have more than one reference. We could say,
“You might think about reading this all”.
MIGHT would be the PAST form of the verb MAY, and it would refer to the PRESENT.


We also could say,
“As children, they loved the old library, where they might read as well as play.”
MIGHT would be the PAST form of the verb MAY, and it would refer to the PAST.


We may envisage Modals in groups. We can name the groups.




POTENTIALITY: 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.


PROBABILITY: 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 language work.


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 often keeps her over the lunchtime. Her coming to lunch is probable, but not certain.



CERTAINTY: It requires both potentiality and probability. Let us think about Monsieur Sauf’s birthday. Madame Règle WILL come to meet him. It is certain.


CONTINGENCY: 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 hardly ever depend on simple factors.




Modalities are not separate categories. Contingency needs a potential to do something. What is certain has to be probable.




We can picture Modal verbs as in a spectrum. Rainbows show spectra of colors (the word “spectrum” comes from Latin and it may have a Latin plural). We can look to volition, building our Modal spectrum.


modal-spectrumEveryone is free to build own spectrum.


Let us think about POTENTIALITY. When we speak about our potential, we can say what we are able to do. For this, we use mostly MAY and CAN.


We are able to do things only in probable circumstances, even if our abilities are outstanding. MAY and CAN 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.


We also have a few Modals to choose from, when we speak about CONTINGENCY. They are need, must, should, have to, and ought to. We always use ought to with the Infinitive: “we ought to learn”, “we ought to work”. The Modal WILL might not get along well with CONTINGENCY for us, independence-loving people (!)


What Modal verbs can we use for CERTAINTY? We can use the same Modals as for CONTINGENCY, plus our good acquaintance, the Modal verb WILL. We humans can be certain about own volition. Let us now think about verbs and time.


POTENTIALITY ― the PRESENT time extent


21. You MAY use the phone.


21a. You CAN use the phone


So far, all our contexts allowed second forms, as COULD or MIGHT, to work for the PAST grammatical time. However, is it enough to use second forms of Modals, to get to the PAST?


21b. You MIGHT use the phone.


21c. You COULD use the phone.


It is not enough to put Modal verbs into their second forms to change the time capability. The second forms may just show another, very close part of our Modality spectrum, and yet stay in the PRESENT.


21b. You MIGHT use the phone (a tentative suggestion in the PRESENT.)


21c. You COULD use the phone (a tentative suggestion in the PRESENT.).


Much of the above is a strong challenge on our arrow cues: how do we use them with Modal verbs?


Modal forms can alter the language register. The register concerns the styles we use when we speak or write on various occasions. In other 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. It is not offensive when we simply state on POTENTIAL or provide information. Content as here is not a form of address: I am not writing specifically to or for a person or persons.



22. Bald eagles CAN fly above clouds.


We would use the verb can as in example 22, during formal talks. Omitting the Modal might be strange. Modal mediation is important in American English. Especially if we want to negotiate or provide guidance, we should not misinterpret Modal verbs for uncertainty or passiveness. We would be in error.



Modal verbs can make us look or sound more polite and sophisticated. They are a matter of good style, tact, and logic. Modal verbs are good in business talks, where they are by no means the same as submissiveness. When we say something would not work for us, we are as assertive as when we say it is not going to work. Let us see how Modals help manage information.


22a. Bald eagles fly above clouds.
(We would be likely to say this about or in a specific area where bald eagles live and fly above clouds.)


23. Modal verbs CAN express varying degrees of potential, probability, contingency, and certainty.
(The guidance applies from and about wherever we refer, as in example 22).


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?)
__Smiley joke PNG


24. 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,
24a. COULD I use your car (please)?


The above does not mean we cannot use arrow cues for the grammatical PAST, with Modal verbs.


POTENTIALITY ― the PAST time extent
25. Alice COULD read when she was five.




26. Ten years ago, he got a loan, and COULD start his new business.


Monsieur Sauf


The matter may look still more complicated, when we think the time reference can be tacit. We can compare chapter 6.2,

7. I haven’t seen her today.
PRESENT Perfect Progressive arrow cue OPEN real-time frame
7a. I didn’t see her today.
PAST arrow CLOSED real-time frame
(The time reference is tacit, as the word “today” does not decide on grammar.)


More, in standard American English, not only Modal verbs can express probability, potentiality, certainty, and contingency:
27. She was able to read.
27a. He was able to open his new business.


In the light, we stay with our arrow cues, and we learn to use them for Modals. Let us think about MAY and CAN for PROBABILITY.


PROBABILITY ― the PRESENT time extent
__PRESENT field


PAST Modal forms may change the degree of probability we express. Let us mark this degree for probability in cubes. We can imagine we are mountaineering.


28. Careful with this handle, it MAY break.
2 cubes


29. Careful with this handle, it CAN break.
4 cubes


28a. Careful with this handle, it MIGHT break.
1 cube


29a. Careful with this handle, it COULD break.
3 cubes






We cannot be “fixed” on word form, to learn. There are multifarious handles in this world. We may need one to break a can of food open, when hiking. A can may be a metal container. We could name the handle in the picture above a quickdraw. Words always can have more than one meaning.




When we can handle our grammar skills, we can be successful with grammar. Grammars are not separate from vocabularies. Dictionaries may differ. When we can handle dictionaries, we are able to compare them and draw own conclusions. We can put those conclusions in our notebooks or thinktionaries.




Let us compare CERTAINTY.


CERTAINTY ― the PRESENT time extent

__PRESENT field


30. The can WILL / HAS TO / MUST break open.
5 cubes


31. The can SHOULD / OUGHT TO break open.
3 cubes


32. The can NEEDS to break open.
4 cubes


The Modals we can use to express CERTAINTY are going to work the same for CONTINGENCY ― except for WILL, as having to do something does not mean that we become willful or willing. We have a note about us, independence-loving people, up the page. Let us keep on developing our framework.

__Smiley PNG


CONTINGENCY ― the PRESENT time extent

__PRESENT field

33. You HAVE TO / MUST take care of the handle.
5 cubes


34. You SHOULD / OUGHT TO take care of the handle.
3 cubes


35. You NEED to take care of the handle.
4 cubes


American English has the informal GOTTA (HAVE / HAS GOT TO) to work as HAVE TO. In official contexts, we keep away from informal uses. When we are not so formal and we want to talk common sense, we can use both the regular and informal HAVE TO / HAVE GOT TO / GOTTA for CERTAINTY as well as CONTINGENCY.


33a. You GOTTA take care of the handle.


We may think common sense when we are far from high mountain areas, too. Common sense does not mean we should not have any sense of humor.


36. That HAS TO / GOTTA be the handle.

__Smiley joke PNG

Orange__Has to be the handle5 cubes__ certainty


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”.


CONTINGENCY__cubes illustration

37. We HAVE TO / GOTTA learn to handle the Modal stuff.

What strategy can we develop for the Modal PAST time compass? We can use syntactic structures. Feel welcome.