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Semantics and Pragmatics of English Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that express modality in the English language. Modality is the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitude of the speaker, which includes opinions about possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency. The nine modal verbs in English are:

  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • must
  • shall
  • should
  • will
  • would

The following sections provide the most common semantic and pragmatic meanings and uses of the nine modal auxiliary verbs in English.

Meanings of Can

The modal verb can primarily expresses ability, permission, possibility, contingency, and requests. For example:

  • Some midwives can attend home births. (ability)
  • This patron can borrow that reference book. (permission)
  • Your son can start kindergarten in the fall. (possibility)
  • You can borrow my car if you fill up the tank with gas. (contingency)
  • Can you buy some more toilet paper? (request)

Meanings of Could

The modal verb could primarily expresses ability, permission, suggestions, possibility, probability, and requests. For example:

  • He could never ride a bike. (ability)
  • You could have borrowed our ladder. (permission)
  • You could check for the book at the library. (suggestion)
  • My contact could have fallen down the drain. (possibility)
  • The car could catch fire at any moment. (probability)
  • Could you pick up a DVD on your way home? (request)

Meanings of May

The modal verb may primarily expresses possibility, probability, permission, and requests. For example:

  • She may take a calculus class in the spring. (possibility)
  • It may rain tonight. (probability)
  • Your sister may borrow my dress. (permission)
  • May we go to the zoo this weekend? (request)

Meanings of Might

The modal verb might primarily expresses possibility, suggestions, commands, and requests. For example:

  • The baby might fall asleep early. (possibility)
  • You might want to try a different pair of pants. (suggestions)
  • You might keep that opinion to yourself next time. (command)
  • Might we go hiking next weekend? (request)

Meanings of Must

The modal verb must primarily expresses obligation, necessity, commands, and deductions. For example:

  • She must finish her vegetables first. (obligation)
  • You must take the class Introduction to Graduate Studies. (necessity)
  • Students must stay out of the Dark Forest. (command)
  • That must be Espen on the phone. (deduction)

Meanings of Shall

The modal verb shall primarily expresses futurity, suggestions, offers, and commands. For example:

  • We shall take the train to the city. (futurity)
  • Shall you paint your living room blue? (suggestions)
  • Shall I finish the laundry for you? (offer)
  • Employees shall not drink during working hours. (command)

Meanings of Should

The modal verb should primarily expresses suggestions, necessity, obligation, and deductions. For example:

  • You should leave the cuffs on that blouse. (suggestion)
  • Employees should stay home when ill. (necessity)
  • You should love your children. (obligation)
  • We should need only a few more hours. (deduction)

Meanings of Will

The modal verb will primarily expresses futurity, commands, suggestions, offers, and requests. For example:

  • A nurse will call you this afternoon. (futurity)
  • You will wash the dishes right now. (command)
  • You will want to see the bay if you visit Mobile. (suggestion)
  • My husband will help you put up your Christmas lights. (offer)
  • Will you please pass the salt? (request)

Meanings of Would

The modal verb would primarily expresses contingency, futurity, habituality, desires, preferences, suggestions, offers, commands, and requests. For example:

  • I would help if you asked. (contingency)
  • She said she would come tonight. (futurity)
  • My brother would read that book every night before bed. (habituality)
  • I would like some milk please. (desire)
  • Would you prefer coffee or tea? (preference)
  • You would want to avoid the main highway this time of day. (suggestion)
  • She would take your Sunday shift. (offer)
  • Would you shut up! (command)
  • Would you lend me a baking dish? (request)

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that express modality in English. The nine English modalscan, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would — each have multiple meanings depending on use and context.

References

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. 1994. Mood and modality. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world, 176-242. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Oxford English Dictionary.
Palmer, F. R. 1990. Modality and the English modals. London: Longman.

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