CHAPTER 9. TO TELL THE FASHION IN VALUABLE TIME

Modal verbs do not narrate the real time. Their manner is relative to real time, as they mediate between the grammatical Time and Aspect. The name “modal” comes from the Latin word “modus”, meaning an extent or measure, too.

At the beginning of our journey, in ■→CHAPTER 2, we viewed the verb form “will” in the fields of time. Grammatically, it does not clearly belong the PRESENT, PAST, or FUTURE. The same is true about all Modal verbs.

Some grammars will have Modals for defective verbs. They differ from other, regular or irregular verbs. Let us compare.

Modal forms can have more than one grammatical time reference.
Let us imagine I say,
You might read this all.
MIGHT is the PAST form of the verb MAY, but it refers to the grammatical PRESENT or FUTURE as well.

Let us imagine I say,
When I was a child, I might read the books in the home library.
MIGHT is the PAST form of the verb MAY, and it refers to the grammatical PAST.

Modal verbs do not use the verb form “will” for their grammatical FUTURE.
We do not say, *will may.

Modal verbs do not have infinitive forms.
We do not say *to may.

They do not have participle forms.
We do not say *mayed or maying.

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 verbs have mostly two forms.

1ST FORM

2ND FORM

may

might

can

could

shall

should

need

needed

must

(must)

will

would

The verb form “to need” can work as a regular verb in American English today; it has three forms, need, needed, needed. The verb form “must” works as a second form only sometimes; we may return to it in further journey. The adjectival form “willing” is formed after the verb to will, considered a regular verb to have come with the noun, will, we may compare ■→WIKTIONARY.

I could open any of the books I wanted, but I soon realized I needed to learn more, to comprehend the word sense, which I was willing and curious to do. I thought I had to go to university.

We may put Modals into logical categories.
POTENTIALITY ~ PROBABILITY
CONTINGENCY ~ CERTAINTY

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 can come into existence.

PROBABILITY
It belongs mostly with guesswork. We people happen to consider probability for 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.

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 a thing 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 upon”.

Madame Règle believes that contingency is something to depend on another matter. Determinist theories hold most events for related, but we can stay with the thought that cause and effect may not be simple factors, still we do not invite contingency for a frequent motif in our lives.

Generally, contingency needs a potential for something to happen. What is certain has to be probable.


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When we speak about own POTENTIAL, we mostly say what we are able to do. To tell own resolves, we 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.

Contingency may require that we adapt to circumstances. Our Modal verbs to express the extent for 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 form SHALL. In American, it is to prefigure on possible 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. — The law obviously does not provide for crime.
USA civics are our language matter for the grammatical article and syntax, in further parts of the grammar journey. It is legal to have the texts linguistically updated for that. See the grammar ■→EXTRAS. along with the ■→NOTES ON USA CHARTERS OF FREEDOM.

To talk certainty about own perception and volition, we have the Modal verbs WILL and MUST. We do not use the verb SHALL to express strong prediction, in American English.

Let us now think about Modal verbs and the grammatical time. So far, all our contexts allowed verb second forms, as COULD or MIGHT, to work for the PAST grammatical time.
It is yet not enough to put a Modal verb into its second form, to indicate the grammatical PAST.

21. You MIGHT | COULD use the phone;
The tentative suggestion or polite offer refers to the PRESENT.

Modal forms influence the language register. The register is the styles we use to speak or write on various occasions. In simple words, it has a lot to do with being well-mannered.

The Modal form CAN is very colloquial in its register for suggestions. It might be even rude, directly to address someone who is not our personal acquaintance.

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.

The Modal form CAN is good style when we provide information, talk about POTENTIAL in objective circumstances.

23. Bald eagles CAN fly above clouds.

We would be likely talking about a particular place or time on Earth to say,
24. Bald eagles fly above clouds.

In American and British as well, requests with the Negative Interrogative imply that we expect consent:

25. COULDN’T I use your car?
(I expect you are going to allow it.)

Most often, requests are made without the Negative:
26. COULD I use your car (please)?

PAST forms may change the degree of Modality we express. Let us mark this degree in cubes. After the hike, we may think about mountaineering.

27. Careful with this handle, it MIGHT break.

27a. Careful with this handle, it MAY break.

28. Careful with this handle, it CAN break.

28a. Careful with this handle, it COULD break.

Modal forms will require that we are flexible. Let us begin with simple words. In example 27, we could name the handle a quickdraw. There are yet multifarious handles in this world. We may need one to break a can of beans open, when hiking.

A can, a noun, may mean a metal container. To can goods, we may put them in cans. The auxiliary can mediate between Time and Aspect; it is a Modal form.
Examples here all involve the same word shape, but not the same language form.

Likewise, rock formations and silk scarves may show similarity in shape, but they are far from similar in physical form, as this may involve matter.

Modal verbs are no exception where we need to perceive the language form in context, for effective language skill.

Let us compare other Modal verbs for their degrees of CONTINGENCY or CERTAINTY.

29. The can WILL / HAS TO / MUST break open.

29. The can SHOULD / OUGHT TO break open.

29. 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).

32. You MUST take care of the handle;
(my common sense says so).

Colloquial American English has phrases as GOTTA TO, HAVE GOT TO, or HAS GOT TO,
for CERTAINTY as well as CONTINGENCY.

Colloquial uses depart from the standard, and they are mostly banned from schools. We yet may need some acquaintance with them to comprehend everyday speech. Informally, the word “stuff” may mean “talk”, “matter”.

34b. We HAVE TO / GOTTA learn to handle the Modal stuff.

Much of the the picture so far is a strong challenge on our time frames and arrow cues: how do we use them with Modal verbs, if Modal shapes, PRESENT or PAST, tell the degree of modality, and not the target grammatical time? We develop Modality time frames.

In both examples here, the Modality frame is open. Our arrow cues continue to indicate the target grammatical time, not the verb form.

35. One COULD read this all in 7 minutes.
(It is possible to read this post in 7 minutes, the PRESENT.)

36. I COULD read when I was five.
(I was able to read when I was five years old, the PAST.)

What strategy could we develop to close the Modal frame? Let us make some more observations on the auxiliary HAVE and syntactic structures.
■→CHAPTER 9.1. MODAL SYNTAX, THE GRAMMATICAL PRESENT OR PAST

■→This text is also available in Polish.


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■ the grammatical Past, Present, and Future;
■ the Simple, Progressive, and Perfect;
■ infinitive, auxiliary, and head verb forms;
■ the Affirmative, Interrogative, Negative, and Negative Interrogative;
■ irregular verbs and vowel patterns: high and low, back and front.
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