9.2. The Modal time frame

We might end up “chasing rainbows” for Modal verbs, without cognitive grounds to manage them. We made acquaintance with time frames in chapter 6.2. We associated the frames with our knowledge of the context, and we compared frame effects with gravitation. We did let the linguistic gravity work, when we had a notional ground.


Our example was Madame Règle, coming to lunch between 1.00 and 2.00 p.m., or not showing up at all. At 1:30 for example, Latimer Sauf might say,


7. I haven’t seen her today.
Real time open frame


At 2:30, Monsieur Sauf might say,
7a. I didn’t see her today.

Real time closed frame

It was his knowledge of the context to give him cognitive ground. The linguistic gravity works when the time span is closed.


So far, our verbs have been regular or irregular, but the patterns they made showed the grammatical PRESENT from PAST or FUTURE directly. We have had green extents to picture their grammatical time.




Modal patterns are not so clear. If we COULD go for a walk today, tomorrow, or we generally had the time yesterday — it would not show in the pattern, “We could go for a walk”. We can think about marking the extent with a different color. Let it be tea rose.




We also may need different time frames, for Modal patterns.


Relative time frames


To see how the Modal frames could work, let us think up a possible context. Jill lives on the West Coast. Her place has a large lounge with a view to the ocean. When you come to visit, you can sit down and look to the Pacific.


Better tomorrow


Madame Règle has visited Jill a few times so far. We may think about her most recent visit.


50. “You could sit down in the lounge, Chantelle. I‘ll make us some tea”, says Jill, greeting Madame Règle.

Relative time open frame


(Chantelle is Madame Règle’s first name. We may know she is not a systematic person, also from chapter 6.2.)


Our Modal time frame is open, though we are not using the auxiliary HAVE, in the phrase “you COULD sit down”.




The USA is not a monolingual country. Millions of people speaking Spanish, Chinese, French, German, and other languages, live in America. French is widely spoken in Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, for example. Could Chantelle Règle be an American?
(Names do not prescribe on personalities or citizenships.)




Let us compare our green time frames, for verb patterns that show the grammatical time directly. Our arrow cues show the main time. It is the PRESENT.


Our green frame is closed on the PRESENT. We are not using the auxiliary HAVE. We are not referring to any time other than the PRESENT.



Our Modal frames have a thing in common with the green, open and real-time frames. We can associate them with an open context. When we visit someone and he or she tells us that we could sit down, he or she makes a polite offer.


We can think about the open Modal frame for things generally offered, allowed, or possible, also in the PAST. Let us compare the arrow cues.


51. When you visited Jill, you always could sit down in the lounge and look to the ocean.



Side by side, we can picture the Modal form. It is the same for the PRESENT and the PAST.


Let us focus on the auxiliary HAVE and the frame, open or closed. We can think about a phrasing as,
“You might have learned”.


Some grammars might say the above can correspond with the Present Perfect,
Maybe you have learned; our open time frame.
Real time open frame


The Modal form could as well correspond with our closed frame for real-time matters: Maybe you learned, a Past Simple form.

Real time closed frame


There is no difference in the Modal form, whether we view it as corresponding with the phrase, “maybe you have learned” (PRESENT Perfect), or the phrase “maybe you learned” (PAST Simple). We get, “you might have learned”.


Let us expand on Modals as modifiers to grammatical tense patterns.

We write.
We MAY / MIGHT write.


We are writing.
We MAY / MIGHT be writing.


We have written.
We MAY / MIGHT have written.


We have been writing.
We MAY / MIGHT have been writing.


A phrase as “we MAY have been writing” does not affirm we are even holding a pen, or typing. The matter is as theoretical for any other activity. Why keep it on the cognitive extent for real time? Let us try the following illustration.



We can say that with Modal verbs our grammatical time is not the real-time. It is relative to the real time.



With the Perfect Aspects, auxiliary HAVE can help map and talk as about real paths and environments. The time frame is open.


Real time open frame

Real-time open frame.






The real-time HAVE always implies something prior, something that precedes. If we have written, the activity started some time before our speaking about it. If we will have written, we expect the activity will be taking place some time before a FUTURE moment.


How we attach our HAVE depends on whether the talk is about real or relative time.


52. She has been reading.


52a. She MAY have been reading.


For relative time, our syntactic HAVE does not tell as about paths or spans in time. It is as a time anchor. It does not open the frame. It closes it. We can recur to a few examples.

Orange handle turned out

41a. I thought the handle MIGHT HAVE / COULD HAVE broken off.
(I was not there. It turned out it was still in place.)


The time frame for the hypothesis is closed.
Closed frame PASTWe can keep the head time (I thought).


Our syntactic HAVE will look still more of a device for keeping the head time, when we think about knowledge of what happens.


52. You COULD HAVE taken care of the handle then.
Closed frame PAST


We could be looking at a broken handle and hear,


52a. I did. Someone else MUST HAVE broken it off.


Let us compare example 50. General ability may not yield to strict temporal caesuras. (Remember about our dictionary practice, look up “caesura” over ahdictionary.com).


50. When you visited Jill, you always COULD sit down in the lounge and look at the ocean.
Open frame PAST


We may refer to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, COCA.

I CAN see.
(The ability does not belong with the PRESENT, only.)


I CAN see an opportunity for this to be actually working.
(The specific instance does belong with the PRESENT, but the ability to see opportunity does not.)


When we give general ability a closed Modal frame, we may suggest that something did not happen. If we “could have sat down”, there are odds we never did. However, we cannot have PAST Modal forms merely for equivalent with the Negative.





We can never be literally “timeless” in what we do or say. We can talk about our real-time PRESENT, PAST, or FUTURE in four Aspects, Simple, Progressive, Perfect, and Perfect Progressive. We can visualize the Aspects with variables {ON, IN, TO}, and {AT}.




We cannot be always assertive, regarding knowledge as well as good manners. Modal verbs give the necessary approximations. They can mediate between the time and the character of activity. We can view Modal forms as relative to real time, mediating. Our forget-me-not is attached to the map. It is not permanent. (It is good to remember about it at tests and exams.)



Many languages join hypothetical and refined (formal, polite, and ― dependent on the context ― favorable or averse) reference, and make generally relative forms. We have more practice in chapter 10.




With Modal verbs, the auxiliary HAVE can be a time anchor to enhance our language economies.


Maybe we HAVE learned something good. {TO}

Maybe we learned something good. {ON}


A Modal phrase as
We MIGHT HAVE learned something good,
will not tell any difference, regarding the real-time variables {TO} and {ON}. We can as well stay with our Simple darts.


WE MIGHT HAVE LEARNED__VARIABLE ONRelative time closed frame.


Modal phrases yet will tell our value {IN}.


Maybe we were learning something good. {IN}
Maybe we HAVE been learning something good. {AT}


We can make a hypothesis:
We MIGHT HAVE been learning something good.


The Modal phrase retains the variable {IN}.


For relative time, we may just balance the variables {ON} and {IN}, and mind if our relative time frame is open or closed: hypothetical time cannot be the same as real duration.


We can call this our Modal net. We net (nullify as non-essential) the Perfect, our variable {TO}, for Modal forms. Our Modal phrases will become much simpler to make, and we remain correct according to classic grammars (!)


Part Four has the nodi of time. Jemma says it is vital to have good gimmicks to make those, and the Modal net with relative time frames is such a good gizmo.


Jemma smile

Please note that our devices are linguistic tools. We do not follow the term of the “language acquisition device”, for human brains. We stay with human language faculties.


Regarding grammar and language information, we keep our written auxiliary HAVE always green, whether it brings an open or closed time frame. Our language structures will benefit, if we always keep the basic distinction between auxiliary and head verbs. Grammar anyway requires thinking, and it would not be a good idea to get dependent on crayons.




Children making mistakes might be actually progressing into more advanced language logic and thinking about hypothetical time, for promises (the story begins with chapter 9.1). If we make a mistake, we do not need to think the end of the world about it. After all, both Jill and Jim can smile (!)


We may not want to grow “out of color”, however advanced in age and language skill we get to be. We can expand our Part One palette.




Let us get to a few details on Modal chemistry and economy (!)