16) Modal auxiliary verbs

Modal auxiliary verbs

There are a series of auxiliary verbs which are described as modal. These are:

can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would.

‘ought to’ can also be added as a semi-auxiliary, despite some differences.

Modal auxiliary verbs have a number of properties which makes them different to the rest of the auxiliary verbs. Firstly, we will look at the structural differences, then we will move onto looking at their individual meanings.

1) Structural differences that make modal auxiliaries different to the ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘have’ forms.

1.1 Modal auxiliaries cannot be inflected

One of the most noticeable differences between the ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘have’ auxiliaries and the modal auxiliaries is that the modal auxiliaries cannot be inflected. This means that modal auxiliary forms only have one form, whereas the ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘have’ auxiliaries have multiple forms. Let’s explore this a bit:

1.1.1 Modal auxiliaries cannot inflect into a past tense form

The auxiliary verbs ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ can have past tense forms. For example, a past tense form of ‘be’ is ‘was’, a past tense form of ‘have’ is ‘had’ and a past tense form of ‘do’ is ‘did’.

This is never strictly the case with modal auxiliary forms, although there are some circumstances where two modal auxiliaries have a somewhat similar relationship. For example, ‘could’ is sometimes seen as a past tense of ‘can’, though this is only in some circumstances, and isn’t a true tense, or inflection.  Let’s explore this example a bit further:

‘Can’ and ‘could’ 

There are actually some sentences where ‘can’ has ‘could’ as a past tense. ‘Could’ is also a modal auxiliary verb. However, ‘could’ only forms the past tense in certain situations. For example:

I could run fast years ago.

This forms the past tense as it refers back to ‘years ago’. We would have to use the past tense verb ‘ran’, as in:

I ran fast years ago.

If we didn’t have ‘could’ there to direct us to the past. However, ‘could’ doesn’t always create a past tense, for example:

I could run fast.

Without the ‘years ago’ this sentence could have three meanings relating to the past, present and future.These are that he used to be able to run fast in the past, or that he is able, and has the possibility of, running fast right now, or in the future. Therefore, ‘could’ isn’t enough to tell us we are in the past here. This is interesting because it shows we need the context of ‘years ago’ to let us know it is the past, showing ‘could’ isn’t really a strict past tense like ‘was’ is. For example:

I was fast.

We don’t need anything else here to know that the writer was fast at something in the past.

Another example where ‘could’ doesn’t create the past is:

Could I stay at your house tomorrow?

Here, ‘could’ is referring to the future, but is really communicating a possibility – the possibility in the future of staying at someone’s house.

If we compare this to ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ we see something different.

‘be’ has ‘was’ which always refers to the past. For example:

I was a fast runner.

I was running fast.

I was going to run fast.

I was expecting more.

‘have’ has ‘had’ which always refers to the past. For example:

I had run fast.

I had expected to run fast.

I had been running fast.

‘do’ has ‘did’ which also always refers to the past:

I did run fast.

I did not run fast.

I did expect to run fast.

So, ‘could’ is not really a strict past tense inflection of ‘can’, and we don’t see any true inflections in modal auxiliaries, while we do see it in the ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ form auxiliaries.

1.1.2 No ‘ing’ forms

Adding ‘ing’ to the end of many verbs can create either a present participle or a gerund. The present participle takes the base form of the verb and adds ‘ing’ on the end to form perfect and perfect progressive tenses or to work as adjectives. Gerunds take a the base form of the verb and add ‘ing’ on the end to form a noun. Because modal auxiliaries can’t be modified, they aren’t able to have any of the ‘ing’ forms. Note how words like ‘shoulding”, ‘mighting’ and ‘shalling’ are not possible. However, the ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ forms can. Let’s explore ‘ing’ forms of ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ to see the differences:

The ‘ing’ form of ‘be’ is ‘being’. An example of it as a main verb present participle is:

I am being sarcastic.

Here ‘am’ is the auxiliary verb and ‘being’ is the main present participle verb.

And an example of it as an auxiliary is:

I am being attacked for making a joke.

He we have ‘am’ + the present participle ‘being’ working to form the present progressive tense. ‘Being’ is also working as an auxiliary verb on the verb ‘attacked’.

The ‘ing’ form of ‘have” is ‘having’. An example of it as a main verb present participle is:

I was having fun.

Here ‘was’ is the auxiliary to the main verb present participle ‘having’.

An example of it as an auxiliary is:

Having been attacked for making a joke, I continued to make more.

This is an interesting construction. Here we have ‘having’ + ‘been’ which combines to make what is sometimes called a perfect participle. ‘Having’ is working similarly to an auxiliary here on ‘been’.

The ‘ing’ form of ‘do’ is ‘doing’. An example of it as a main verb present participle is:

I was doing nothing.

It appears to be much harder to find any examples of ‘doing’ as an auxiliary, if they exist at all.

Trying to inflect modal auxiliaries with an ‘ing’ form leads to strange, incorrect constructions like:

Maying learn to draw would inspire him. (incorrect)

Perhaps this could be turned into something like:

Being able to learn to draw would inspire him.

1.1.3 Modal auxiliaries cannot have ‘to’ infinitive forms

Infinitives are made up of ‘to’ + the base form of the verb, as in ‘to run’, ‘to jump’ and ‘to think.’ Examples of these in a sentence are:

I would like to run.

He will try his best to jump.

I just want to think.

This cannot be done with modal auxiliaries. For example:

He tries to can write well. (incorrect)

is incorrect. What this appears to be trying to say is:

He tries to be able to write well.

or simply

He tries to write well.

1.2 Modal auxiliaries cannot have any form of auxiliary behind them

Modal auxiliaries can’t have any form of auxiliary, modal or otherwise, behind them. This is because they can’t be the main verb – they can only work as an auxiliary.

For example, here are the beginning of some sentences made up of a subject (e.g., ‘I’) + a ‘be’, ‘have’ or ‘do’ form + a choice of modal auxiliaries. Note how hard it is to finish any of these sentences:

I am can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would

I have can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would…

He does can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would...

It is very hard to think of any words which can complete these sentences because a modal auxiliary (e.g., ‘can’) cannot come after another auxiliary (e.g., ‘am’).

Some examples trying to add modal auxiliary + modal auxiliary give the same result:

I can can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would…

I may can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would…

He will can/could/may/might/must/shall/should/will/would…

It is hard to find ways to end these sentences because modal auxiliaries cannot have a modal auxiliary behind them.

However, we can have modal auxiliary + auxiliary as in:

I might have lost your wallet.

Here we have the modal auxiliary ‘might’ + the auxiliary ‘have’ which is working on the past tense main verb ‘lost’.

We can also have auxiliary + auxiliary as in:

I have been tired all day.

Here we have the auxiliary ‘tired’ + the auxiliary ‘been’ + the main verb ‘tired’.

2) Breakdown of different uses of modal verbs

Let’s now take a closer look at each one of the modal auxiliary verbs and explore the various uses and meanings they can display.

2.1 Can and Could

As we have seen, modal auxiliaries don’t have strict past tense inflections, but ‘could’ sometimes fits in as a past tense of ‘can’. Considering this, we will look at them together. The main use of ‘can’ and ‘could’ is to show the possibility of something. For example:

I can throw a ball very far.

Here we have the modal auxiliary verb ‘can’ helping the main verb ‘throw’ and expressing the ability to do something (‘throw the ball very far’). This is in the simple present tense, so it is expressing the ability to throw the ball in the present. Note that it isn’t telling us that the ball is being thrown now, or in the past, just that the subject ‘I’ has the potential to ‘throw the ball very far’. If we swap ‘can’ for ‘could’ we get:

I could throw a ball very far.

This could have three interpretations: it might be saying that the subject ‘I’ had/has the ability to ‘throw a ball very far’ in the past, present, or future. If we take it as in the past, there is perhaps the slight implication that he isn’t able to ‘throw a ball very far’ any longer, but was able to in the past. This implication might be communicated with an extra stress on ‘could’, or simply stating afterwards. Let’s look at three examples where this relates to past, present or future.

I could throw a ball very far; however, that was 20 years ago.

I could throw a ball very far; watch me attempt it right now.

I could throw a ball very far tomorrow at the game.

The interesting difference here is that ‘could’ relates more to the possibility of something happening than ‘can’. While these three are all referring to different times, the one thing they have in common is that they are talking about the possibility of something happening – which is signified by the word ‘could’.

Actually, even with ‘can’ it relates to a possibility; it is just that the possibility tends to be more strong. Take a look at this again:

I can throw a ball very far.

This sounds very confident, though it is more a confident assertion than a definite fact like ‘He throws the ball very far.’ Now take a look at a less confident example:

I can throw a ball very far if the wind is helping me and I am having a good day.

Now, once we add the subordinating conjunction ‘if’ followed by conditions, we move from a strong expression of possibility to one which can only happen under certain circumstances. Again, if we add in ‘could’ it seems less sure than ‘can’:

I could throw a ball very far if the wind is helping me and I am having a good day.

If you had to bet, which of these two sentences sound like they have the more convincing ball throwing ability?

There is also a more controversial use of the modal auxiliaries ‘can’ and ‘could’ and this relates to asking for permission about something as in:

Can I play your guitar?

Many will say this is:

1) An impolite way of making such a request because ‘can’ is more insistent than ‘may’.

2) Inaccurate because it is more like it is saying ‘Do you think I am able to play your guitar?’ rather than ‘May I play your guitar please?’.

They would say to replace it with:

May I play your guitar?

I tend to agree with them: the latter is more polite and more accurate for most situations.

How about if we switch in ‘could’ for ‘can’?:

Could I play your guitar?

This is perhaps less insistent than ‘can’, so probably a bit more polite. However, there is still some ambiguity because ‘could’ could still mean ‘Do I have the ability to play your guitar?’ So, I would still suggest the best way is:

May I play your guitar?

2.2 May and Might

May/might when making a request

One of the main uses of ‘may’ is when making a request, as we just saw in the example:

May I play your guitar?

‘might’ is often used in the place of ‘may’ when the thing being talked about is less certain. So, if you want to play the guitar but know that it is less likely to be accepted, you could say:

Might I play your guitar?

This is subtle, but it is useful to have words which are similar but have a slight difference because it allows your writing, and speaking, to be more specific.

May/might when talking about possibilities

We can also use may/might when talking about possibilities, as in:

I may borrow his guitar tomorrow.

I might borrow his guitar tomorrow.

Again, we can use ‘may’ if we are more sure of borrowing it, and ‘might’ if it is less certain. However, there can be some ambiguity when using ‘may’ in this situation. When we say:

I may borrow his guitar tomorrow.

It could mean that ‘I am allowed to borrow his guitar tomorrow’ or ‘I might borrow his guitar tomorrow’. Some, therefore, would argue that ‘might’ is less ambiguous in this situation.

May / might and past tense

As well as what we have heard so far about using ‘may’ in more likely scenarios than ‘might’, and using ‘might’ when ‘may’ would be ambiguous, there is also the idea of tense to consider. The idea to remember is that, when using the past tense, many would say to use ‘might have’ instead of ‘may have’. For example, let’s say there is a likely chance that someone named ‘John’ arrived home yesterday; using the previous rule we might think it better to use ‘may have’ than ‘might have’ as in:

John may have arrived home yesterday.

However, because we are talking about an event in the past, some would say that we should use ‘might have’ as in:

John might have arrived home yesterday.

It appears there is some contention over this, with the difference not being recognised as much as it used to be. Have a think about which one you feel is better, and why. The benefit of using ‘may’ when it is more likely, and ‘might’ when it is less likely is that we get to have that differentiation between the two, which is a nice subtle little way of indicating the likelihood of something. On the other hand, if we use ‘might’ for the past, this gives us an extra way to point out that this is in the past, which could also be useful.

However, there are some situations where it is vital to use ‘may’ and ‘might’ separately. These are situations where, ‘may’ describes a possibility in the present which is still ongoing, whereas ‘might have’ talks about a hypothetical situation in the past which could have happened. For example, if a rock has just been extracted from Mars we might hear:

The rock may be evidence that there was once life on Mars.

This is telling us that there is a possibility that this is the case, but more information is needed before we can be sure. We are in the present, with the feeling that people are currently trying to find out the answer to this question. In contrast, ‘might have’ can describe a hypothetical situation in the past as in:

If they had found the chemical in the rock, it might have changed the way we view the possibility of life within our solar system.

This example is further down the road when we have all the information and now know the rock didn’t have that evidence for life on Mars within it (‘might’ + ‘have’ + the past participle ‘changed’ are being combined here to create the present perfect tense). The use of the subordinating conjunction ‘if’ along with ‘might have’ suggests that the event didn’t happen; it is just a hypothetical about something that could have happened in the past. If we had written ‘may have’ it creates the possibility that this is still able to happen, as in:

If they had found the chemical in the rock it may have changed the way we view the possibility of life within our solar system.

A more simple example of this use of ‘might have’ is seen below:

I might have won the race if I didn’t fall over.

This feels like it is someone after losing a race talking about what could have been. Note how important the subordinate clause ‘if I didn’t fall over’ is here. If we take it away we are left with:

I might have won the race.

This feels incomplete, like it needs another statement to create the hypothetical. In contrast, if we put ‘may’ in its place it sounds more complete:

I may have won the race.

This feels like someone just finished a close race and is waiting to see if they got over the finish line first or not. Moreover, if we place the subordinate clause back in, with ‘may’ still there, we get:

I may have won the race If I didn’t fall over.

This feels a bit wrong to me, like the person is waiting in the present to hear the result, but also talking as though they have already lost, and discussing the reason for the loss. Again, the difference here is subtle, but it is worth being aware of these ideas if you want your writing to be as accurate as possible.

Use ‘may’ when giving permission

There are also other examples where getting ‘may’ and ‘might’ mixed up can cause problems. For example, when giving, or refusing, permission for something, we use ‘may’ as in:

Yes, you may borrow my guitar.

I’m afraid you may not borrow my guitar.

If we use ‘might’ in these examples it will be wrong, as in:

Yes, you might borrow my guitar. (incorrect)

I’m afraid you might not borrow my guitar. (incorrect)

2.3 Must

There are many different uses of the modal auxiliary verb ‘must’ including showing the necessity of something, an insistent proposal and a conclusion that is considered very likely to be true. Let’s look at examples of each of these:

Necessity of something

Firstly, looking at the present tense we have:

They must pay before seeing the show.

Here we have the modal auxiliary ‘must’ emphasising the necessity of paying before seeing a show.

To talk about the past we need to switch to ‘had to’ as in:

They had to pay before seeing the show.

This example similarly talks about a necessity, but this time in the past: ‘they had to pay before seeing the show’; if they didn’t pay they wouldn’t have seen the show. This is different to ‘they paid before seeing the show’ which just talks about a past event, but doesn’t stress the necessity of paying so strongly.

We can also have a negative version of these examples. The best way to make these examples negative is to use some form of ‘do not have to’ as in:

They must pay before seeing the show.

becomes

They do not have to pay before seeing the show.

and

They had to pay before seeing the show.

becomes

They did not have to pay before seeing the show.

However, if we want to make an insistent proposal we would say something like:

They must not pay before seeing the show.

This is something a bit different because it isn’t just showing a lack of necessity, but is making an insistent proposal that they do not pay before seeing the show. Let’s look at more examples of this type next.

An insistent proposal

An example of ‘must’ being used in an insistent proposal in the present tense is:

You must leave the room now.

Here the modal auxiliary verb ‘must’ is expressing an insistent proposal to leave the room now. This is also a form of necessity, but it is one step further in its strength. It isn’t just saying it is necessary, but it is demanding that it happens. If we wanted to talk about the past we would use ‘should have’ as in:

You should have left the room an hour ago.

This is actually called the present perfect tense (‘have’ + past participle) which describes something in the past which is still ongoing.

Negative versions use ‘must not’ or ‘should not’ so:

You must leave the room now.

becomes

You must not leave the room now.

and

You should have left the room an hour ago.

becomes

You should not have left the room an hour ago.

A conclusion that is considered very likely to be true

An example of ‘must’ being used in the present tense to express a conclusion that is considered very likely to be true is:

The winner must be the second book.

Here, ‘must’ is telling us that the writer thinks the second book is very likely to be the winner. It isn’t complete certainty, which would be something like:

The winner is the second book.

but it is almost certain – at least in the writer’s eyes. Of course, the writer might be biased, and someone else might say:

The winner must be the first book.

It is important to remember the certainty is subjective; that is to say it is based on the perspective of the writer or speaker who is saying it, rather than in objective fact. This wouldn’t be possible with ‘is’ because we couldn’t have both:

The winner is the first book.

and

The winner is the second book.

If there is only one winner it can only be one of these two.

The negatives will use ‘must not’ as in:

The winner must be the second book.

becomes

The winner must not be the second book.

The ‘must not’ example here is like the writer is pleading that the winner not be the second book. Perhaps a more likely common example is something like:

That must not be the right house; there is supposed to be a party going on.

Here, ‘must not’ is expressing the conclusion that it is very likely – though not certain – the house isn’t the right one.

We can make the past tense example negative by using ‘must not have been’ so:

The winner must have been the second book.

becomes

The winner must not have been the second book.

2.4 Shall and Will

Will

‘Will” is most often used in the future tense, as in:

I will drive home tomorrow.

Here the modal auxiliary ‘will’ is being used to express an expected action in the future (i.e., going home tomorrow). We will look at ‘will’ in the future tense in more detail soon. I should say now that there is an argument that there is no such thing as the future tense in English, which we explore after learning tenses, here. Don’t worry too much for now, but it is worth being aware that there are multiple ways of expressing the future, and the future ‘tense’ is not strict like the past and present.

When using a negative form of ‘will’, like ‘will not’ or it’s contraction ‘won’t’, it can be used to talk about future expected events, as in:

I will not drive home tomorrow.

‘will’ can also be used for questions, as in:

Will you pass the salt?

Is this talking about the future or present? It is asking a person if they will do something right now in the present, so I would say this is the present. However, if the person does pass the salt, it will happen in the very near future, but the future nonetheless, so there is some ambiguity. Something truly present would be:

Are you passing the salt?

This could be as someone is passing the salt over to you at that very moment.

And then there are situations like:

The car will not start.

This could be relating to the future, as in saying ‘This car is not going to start at any point in the future’. However, a lot of people use it for the present, as in ‘I can’t get this car to start right now’. Another way of saying the latter is:

The car is not starting.

So, while ‘will’ is often used in relation to the future, it can also relate to the present.

Shall / Will and expressing the future

Shall is used to express the future in the first person, apart from when the sentence wants to express a promise, or threat, a sense of duty, or a command, where it expresses the future in the second and third person. Likewise, ‘will’ is used to express the future in the second and third person, apart from when the sentence wants to express a sense of determination, where it expresses the future in the first person.

Let’s look at this more closely by showing examples of expressing the future when we don’t want to express a sense of determination / duty, accompanied with examples that do want to show a sense of determination / duty.

When we don’t want to express a sense of determination ‘shall’ is used to express the future in the first person, and ‘will’ is used to express it in the second and third. In the first person we use the plural pronouns ‘I’ – for singular – and ‘we’ – for plural. An example using ‘shall’ to express the future in the first person singular is:

I shall give you the address shortly.

Here we have the modal auxiliary verb ‘shall’ expressing the future by expressing the idea that the address will be given to the person in the future. Remember, it is an auxiliary because it is helping out the main verb ‘give’. Note the use of the singular first person pronoun ‘I’ which informs us we are in the first person, and, therefore, should use ‘shall’ rather than ‘will’ when we don’t want to express a sense of determination. The writer, or speaker, is talking about giving someone an address, but there isn’t a sense of determination, or duty, about it. If we wanted to express determination we would use ‘will’ as in:

I will give you the address shortly.

This gives an extra feeling that the writer, or speaker, is determined to give that address to the recipient.

Another example is:

We shall be home tomorrow.

Here we have the modal auxiliary verb ‘shall’ expressing the future by communicating the idea that more than one person will be home in the future. It is auxiliary because it is helping out the main verb ‘be’. Note the use of the plural first person pronoun ‘we’ which informs us we are in the first person, and therefore should use ‘shall’ rather than ‘will’ when we don’t want to express an extra sense of duty. The writer, or speaker, is talking about being home in the future, but there isn’t a sense of determination about it. If we wanted to express an extra sense of determination we would use ‘will’ as in:

We will be home tomorrow.

This gives an extra feeling that the writer, or speaker, is determined to get home tomorrow.

As has been stated, when we don’t want to express a promise, or sense of duty, we use ‘will’ for the second and third person. An example from the second person is:

You will be home tomorrow.

Here we have the modal auxiliary ‘will’ expressing the future in the second person by expressing the idea of being home in the future. It is working as an auxiliary to the main verb ‘be’. Note the use of the second person pronoun ‘you’ which is used for both singular and plural. This sentence is not looking to express a promise, or sense of determination, and is in the second person, so we use ‘will’. However, if we were in the second person and wanted to express a promise, or a sense of duty, we would use ‘shall’ as in:

You shall be home tomorrow.

This could be considered a promise, sense of duty, or command depending on the situation. It could be a promise if the recipient it being assured of her arrival home tomorrow, a sense of duty if she is being told that this is her duty, perhaps because her mother is ill and needs her, or a command if she is being told she has to be home by tomorrow. Most people will use ‘must’ for a command nowadays, as in:

You must be home tomorrow.

Our original sentence could also be a threat as in ‘you shall be home tomorrow (or else)’ with the ‘shall’ meaning the ‘or else’ is implied. This would be different to simply stating stating that ‘you will be home tomorrow.’

Let’s look at some examples where we don’t want to add a sense of determination / duty in the third person:

He will be home tomorrow.

Note the third person ‘He’ here and the use of ‘will’ to express the future where we don’t want to add a promise or sense of duty. As with the second person, if we did want to create a promise / sense of duty, we would use ‘shall’ as in:

He shall be home tomorrow.

This could be a promise to a waiting father that his son will be home tomorrow, a sense of duty where the waiting father is being told his son shall come home because it is his duty to, perhaps because his father is ill or a command being told to someone who will then have to pass it on to the recipient that he must come home tomorrow. Again, most people will use ‘must’ for a command nowadays, as in:

He must be home tomorrow.

And, as before, this could also be a threat: ‘he shall be home tomorrow (or else)’ with the ‘shall’ meaning the ‘or else’ is implied. This would be different to simply stating that ‘he will be home tomorrow’.

It is very easy to get these mixed up, because, going by these rules, we now have:

I/We shall be home tomorrow : not expressing determination

You shall be home tomorrow : expressing a promise, command or a duty

He shall be home tomorrow : expressing a promise, command or a duty

We will be home tomorrow : expressing a sense of determination

You will be home tomorrow : not expressing a promise, command or a duty

He will be home tomorrow : not expressing a promise, command or a duty

As I said, it is extremely easy to either get these confused or to forget them completely, which, along with it being a subtle difference, is probably why a lot of people ignore the concept. Or, perhaps people don’t find it to be a useful concept? I suggest you have a think about whether you think it is useful, or not. I think these kinds of subtleties are well worth looking at because they add a delicate nature to the language which allow it to be more accurate and expressive, even if they are probably quite annoying for people whose first language isn’t English, and are struggling to get the basics of a whole new language down.

A regularly used combination of examples to illustrate the idea is

1) ‘I shall drown; no one will save me.’

Here we have examples of ‘shall’ and ‘will’ being used to just show the future, and not express a sense of determination, nor duty, in both of these clauses. We have the first person ‘I shall drown’ indicating the person will drown in the future, then ‘no one will save me’ which is third person indicating that he will not be saved in the future. This tells us the person is simply saying he will drown and and not be saved.

2) ‘I will drown; no one shall save me.’

Here we have an example of ‘will’ being used to show determination and ‘shall’ being used to show a sense of duty. Both of these are said to suggest a suicidal intent. In ‘I will drown’ the ‘will’ is showing a determination to drown, suggesting the person wants to commit suicide. In ‘no one shall save me’ the ‘shall’ is representing a sense of duty, as though he is saying that there is nobody whose duty it is to save him, or, perhaps, nobody who has made the promise to save him.

Let’s now have a table showing these all next to each other, for reference:

Person Pronoun Future tense not expressing determination / promise or sense of duty Future tense expressing

a) determination

b) a promise or threat, sense of duty, or a command

1st person singular I I shall be home tomorrow. I will be home tomorrow (expressing determination)
1st person plural We We shall be home tomorrow. We will be home tomorrow (expressing determination)
2nd person singular You You will be home tomorrow. You shall be home tomorrow (a promise or threat, sense of duty, or a command)
2nd person plural You You will be home tomorrow. You shall be home tomorrow (a promise or threat, sense of duty, or a command)
3rd person singular He/She/It He will be home tomorrow. He shall be home tomorrow (a promise or threat, sense of duty, or a command)
3rd person plural They They will be home tomorrow. They shall be home tomorrow (a promise or threat, sense of duty, or a command)

Using shall / will in questions

‘Shall’ is used in questions which offer or suggest something in the first person as in:

Shall I order some food?

Shall we leave now?

as well as questions which request suggestions, as in:

What shall I order from the Chinese takeaway?

What shall we do later?

If we changed ‘shall’ to ‘will’ in all of these they would go from being suggestions, or requests for suggestions, into more simple statements, as in:

Will I order some food?

Will we leave now?

What will I order from the Chinese takeaway?

What will we do later?

The first 3 examples above have changed from suggesting something, or requesting a suggestion, to seemingly making the recipient of the question guess his or her future actions. The fourth example:

What will we do later?

is a more realistic question, but, instead of asking for a suggestion, he is more plainly asking what they will do later, as though the answer will be definite, rather than something to be discussed.

So, as we have just seen, ‘will’ is used for questions which ask about an expected event in the future in the first person. They also do this in the second and third person, as in:

Will you pass me the salt?

Will she answer my call?

It wouldn’t make sense to write

Shall you pass me the salt? (incorrect)

Shall she answer my call? (incorrect)

because both of these are asking about an expected future event, and ‘will’ is used for this purpose.

Formal

There has been some controversy over the use of ‘shall’ in formal situations, such as legal documents, with lawsuits being centred around its use. We won’t go into this now, but be aware that there are often very specific rules in legal documents that need to be considered when writing or reading them which can be different depending on the area being written about.

Contractions

The contractions of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ which are sometimes used when talking in an informal setting sometimes don’t allow us to tell if the speaker is using ‘will’ or ‘shall’ as in:

I’ll be there tomorrow.

This could be either:

1) I will be there tomorrow.

2) I shall be there tomorrow.

This is the same for ‘you’ll’, ‘he’ll’, ‘she’ll’, ‘it’ll’, ‘we’ll’, ‘you’ll’ and ‘they’ll’. Therefore, if you want to use the specific meanings of ‘shall’ and ‘will’ noted in this section, you will have to avoid using contractions. Fortunately, for negative versions, there are differences, as in:

I will not = I won’t

I shall not = I shan’t

2.5 Should  and Would

1) Should

Should used for giving advice or recommending something

Should is used when giving advice, or recommending something. An example of ‘should’ being used to recommend something is:

You should read Shakespeare’s sonnets.

To relate this to the past we could say:

You should have read Shakespeare’s sonnets.

An example of ‘should’ being used to give advice is:

You should spend more time with your friends.

To relate this to the past we might say:

You should have spent more time with your friends.

Should for expectation

‘Should’ can also be used to show that an event is expected, as in:

It should be sunny all day.

To relate this to the past we might say:

It should have been sunny all day.

Note ‘should have been’ is being used here to describe a past event that was expected to happen but in reality didn’t; the implication of ‘It should have been sunny all day.’ is that it wasn’t sunny all day.

Should for obligation

Should can also be used to show obligation.

An example of ‘should’ being used for a work related obligation is:

I should be studying for my exam.

To relate this to the past we might say:

I should have been studying for my exam.

An example of ‘should’ be used to show a moral obligation is:

She should help her father while he is ill.

To relate this to the past we might say:

She should have helped her father while he was ill.

Should in conditionals

‘Should’ can sometimes be used in conditional sentences. Conditional sentences are sentences which have a subordinate clause – usually beginning with ‘if’ – and a main clause, and express a condition and a result. ‘Should’ is sometimes used in these sentence to replace ‘would’ in the first person singular (‘I’, ‘we’). This can be when trying wanting to sound polite, as in:

If you let me take you out to dinner, I should be very pleased.

If you wanted to help us with the music, we should be very excited.

Using ‘should’ rather than ‘would’ here is is probably considered more polite because it is less direct than writing:

If you let me take you out to dinner, I would be very pleased.

If you wanted to help us with the music, we would be very excited.

‘Should’ can be used in a similarly polite way to replace ‘if’ in these conditional statements, as in:

Should you let me take you out to dinner, I would be very pleased.

Should you want to help us with the music, we would be very excited.

In fact, in these two examples, it probably makes more sense to use ‘should’ at the beginning, where a request is being made, rather than in the main clauses (I would be very pleased / we would be very pleased) which are already much more inherently polite.

‘Should’ can also be used in conditional sentences to express something that is unlikely, as in:

If someone should return my wallet, please send it to my house.

This is adding the extra detail that it isn’t likely that the wallet will be found. Without ‘should’ it would say:

If someone returns my wallet, please send it to my house.

Why / How should

A common construction is to say something like:

Why should we clear up; you made the mess.

This is usually used to indicate the speaker thinks something unjust is happening. It is like a shorter way of saying something like:

I do not see the reason that we should clear up; you made that mess.

Another construction sometimes used is:

How should I know; you were on duty that night.

This is usually used to indicate that the speaker is annoyed at being asked a question about something because the likelihood of them knowing is low, and, often, the question being asked may have an accusatory nature to it, as in:

Person 1: ‘Who left the door open last night?’

Person 2: ‘How should I know; you were on duty’

2) Would

Would to talk about the past

We often use ‘would’ to talk about the past as in:

She always knew this day would come.

Here the sentence is talking about the knowing of something in the past. Actually, it is the past tense ‘knew’ that is really showing us this. If it was in the present tense we would have ‘knows’ and ‘will’ rather than ‘would’ as in:

She knows that day will come.

So we have to use ‘would’ here when talking about the past, with it also having the property of affirming something, as we will see later.

Another example is:

John said he would beat the world record.

Here the sentence is talking about speech that happened in the past. This is actually a complex one because the past tense ‘said’ is often used in novels even as the action is unfolding. There is some controversy about whether to use ‘said’ or ‘says’ in certain situations. Actually, authors sometimes use past tense versions of verbs in novels even when the events are unfolding in the present, showing that this isn’t straight forward. In this circumstance, ‘said’ is generally considered correct because ‘would’ is also directing us to the past. So, if it was:

John says he would beat the world record. (this is arguably incorrect)

It wouldn’t make much sense because ‘says’ lets us know the speaking is happening in the present, but ‘would’ is suggesting that John was talking about beating the world record in the past. So this is like saying that John is currently talking about how he would beat the world record yesterday. If we wanted to use ‘says’ we would have to change to the future tense ‘will’ as in:

John says he will beat the world record.

Now John is currently saying (‘says’) that he ‘will’ beat the world record in the future, which makes more sense.

Another example is:

I would often walk in those hills in the summer.

Here the sentence is talking about a past habit that used to happen. Note that ‘would’ is the modal auxiliary verb and ‘walk’ is its main verb, not ‘often’. We look at this briefly right at the bottom of this page, in verb phrases. For now, it is worth noting that ‘often’ is an adverb which is modifying the main verb ‘walk’, but doesn’t usually count as part of the verb phrase.

Would to talk about the future from the perspective of the past

We can also use ‘would’ to talk about the future from the perspective of the past, as in:

From that day forward he knew that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Here we have the past tense ‘knew’ telling us the knowing happened in the past, and ‘would’ to let us know that the future being talked about is only in relation to the past. If we wanted to change to a person knowing now that they will spend the rest of their life in jail we would use ‘knows’ and ‘will’ as in:

From today he knows that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Would to affirm something

‘Would’ can also be used to affirm something as in:

I would love to come for dinner.

Here ‘would’ is telling us that the writer does, rather than doesn’t, want to come for dinner.

We can also ask for an affirmation in a question using ‘would’ as in:

Would you like to come for dinner?

Here ‘would’ is allowing us to ask whether the recipient of the question does, or doesn’t, want to come to dinner.

‘Would’ is also seen by some as being more polite than many other constructions including using ‘will’, as in:

Will you come to dinner with me?

Using ‘would’ to affirm something is generally less direct, and more polite. Let’s look at three different sentences and consider which are most polite

1) Pass me the salt.

2) Will you pass me the salt?

3) Would you pass me the salt?

The first is the least polite, and most direct, the second is a bit more polite, and a bit less direct, and the third is the most polite and least direct. The first sentence almost seems like an order, whereas the second is a question, but is still more insistent than the third, which is a much more gentle way of asking.

Another example relates to an opinion on something, as in:

I would think he is embarrassed.

Here we have the writer saying he does, rather than doesn’t, think something. Using ‘would’ here is a less direct, and more polite, way of saying something than:

I think he is embarrassed.

Using ‘would’ makes us seem more humble when talking about opinions, or things relating to knowledge. It is a way of adding the caveat that we may be wrong about our assertion, and we don’t want to be too forceful with it.

Furthermore, it being less direct also adds a sense of uncertainty. So, if we are going to visit someone who is always at home at this time, we might say:

I think he will be at home.

In contrast, if we are less sure he is at home, we add ‘would’ as in:

I would think he will be at home.

Despite all these examples, ‘would’ can also be used for the opposite of politeness when affirming something. In this case, ‘would’ is being used to affirm something in a mocking and cynical way as in:

Person 1: Ben says he didn’t steal the money.

Person 2: Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The ‘would’ is often emphasised in these kinds of mocking constructions. What person 2 is trying to say here is ‘he stole the money, but he won’t say he did because then he would get in trouble.’ It is important we don’t get this mocking version of ‘would’ mixed up with the polite one!

Implied main verb

There are some sentences where the main verb is implied, which is liable to cause confusion because ‘would’ appears to be the only verb in the sentence, but it cannot be the main verb. For example:

She would not walk that far, but I would.

In the main clause ‘I would’ – introduced by ‘but’ – it appears that ‘would’ is alone; however, ‘walk that far’ is actually implied, making ‘walk’ the main verb. What it is really saying is this:

She would not walk that far, but I would (walk that far).

This omission prevents repetition, and is therefore more efficient. Moreover, a sentence like:

She would not walk that far, but I would walk that far.

sounds awkward, in the same way that repeating a name does, instead of using a pronoun. On the other hand:

She would not walk that far, but I would.

does sound a little short, so there is the temptation to add details such as:

She would not walk that far, because she was tired. In contrast, I was full of energy and wanted to continue.

Which is used would obviously depend on the intention of the sentence.

Would in conditionals

We also often use ‘would’ in second and third conditional sentences, which will be dealt with in detail later. Briefly, second conditional sentences have two forms:

1) Uses a subordinate clause with a simple past tense + a main clause with ‘would’ + base form of the verb as in:

If the food were hot, I would eat it.

Here we have a sentence which gives a hypothetical situation (‘If the food were hot’) then gives a probable result if that hypothetical situation really occurred (‘I would eat it’). Note how the hypothetical ‘if the food were hot’ is implying that the food isn’t hot, and the main clause ‘I would eat it’ is suggesting that the writer isn’t going to eat the food.

2) Uses a subordinate clause with a simple past tense + a main clause with ‘would’ + ‘be’ + the present participle of the verb as in

If it were sunny, I would be walking home.

Third conditionals also have two forms:

1) A subordinate clause with a past perfect tense (‘had’ + past participle) and a main clause with would + have + past participle as in:

If he had walked, he would have been late.

Here we have a subordinate clause expressing a situation in the past that didn’t happen (‘if he had walked’) and a main clause (‘he would have been late’) expressing the probable reaction that would have occurred if the situation in the subordinate clause had happened. Essentially, third conditionals are used to imagine what would have happened, in the past, if a past event that didn’t happen had actually occurred.

2) A subordinate clause with a past perfect tense (‘had’ + past participle) and a main clause with ‘would have been’ + present participle

If he had walked, he would have been running late.

Here we have a subordinate clause expressing a situation in the past that didn’t happen (‘if he had walked’) and a main clause (‘he would have been running late’) expressing the probable ongoing reaction that would have occurred if the situation in the subordinate clause had happened.

2.6 Ought to

‘Ought to’ is often considered a semi-modal auxiliary verb because it is followed by ‘to’ which doesn’t work for the others. For example:

I should to get more exercise. (incorrect)

She might to call later. (incorrect)

However, it is similar to a modal auxiliary in that it doesn’t change form in first, second or third person, as in:

I ought to get more exercise.

You ought to get more exercise.

He ought to get more exercise.

Another way it is like a modal auxiliary verb is it cannot be used with another one, as in

I ought to should get more exercise. (incorrect)

which is wrong.

The main uses of ‘ought to’ are to talk about something that I, we, others, or some moral, or practical, code, says should be true. This can be in an idealistic sense, or simply in the sense that it is likely to be true.

An example of a sentence using ‘ought to’ to talk about something that we, others, or some moral, or practical, code, says should be true is:

I ought to visit my grandparents more.

Here the modal auxiliary ‘ought to’ is supporting the main verb ‘visit’ to express the idea that the writer believes he has a moral obligation to visit his grandparents more, with the implication that he isn’t visiting them enough at this point.

To express the past we can use ‘ought to have’ or ‘should have’ along with changing ‘visit’ to ‘visited’ as in:

I ought to have visited my grandparents more.

I should have visited my grandparents more.

‘Should have’ is a lot more common than ‘ought to have’ in these types of sentences.

Another example is:

You ought to spend less on clothes.

Here we have the modal auxiliary ‘ought to’ supporting the main verb ‘spend’ to tell someone else that they are spending too much on clothes, and, therefore, have a practical obligation to spend less. I suppose it could also be a moral obligation if the recipient is spending money on clothes rather than feeding his children. Some people might disagree with this moral obligation; for example, the person being spoken to who likes spending a lot of money on clothes. This reminds us that the obligation, or ideal, expressed by ‘ought to’ is subjective. Another example is:

We ought to speak to our neighbours more.

Here we have the modal auxiliary ‘ought to’ supporting the main verb ‘speak’ to tell us that whoever ‘we’ is has an obligation of some sort to speak to their neighbours more. ‘We’ could actually be everyone in the UK, or just a couple living in a house. One more example is:

I ought to fix my car.

Here ‘ought to’ is supporting the main verb ‘fix’ and expressing a practical, or moral, obligation that the writer feels he has to to get his car fixed.

‘Ought to’ can also be used to express the idea that something is very likely to happen, as in:

He ought to be at home tonight.

This is like saying ‘it is likely he is at home tonight’. This could also suggest there is a moral, or practical, obligation to be at home. The context of the sentence would tell us which of these two it is. For example:

He doesn’t go out on Thursdays, so he ought to be at home tonight.

I can’t believe he went out when he has an exam tomorrow; he ought to be at home tonight.

The context of the first example above is telling us it is likely, whereas the second example is telling us there is a practical obligation.

We could use ‘ought to have’ or ‘should have’ to express the past when talking about likely events, as in:

He ought to have been at home tonight.

He should have been at home tonight.

‘Ought to’ can also be used in questions, to request information about what is likely, or right to do, as in:

What ought to happen to the criminal?

To express the past we can again use ‘have’ as in:

What ought to have happened to the criminal?

What should have happened to the criminal?

Ought to vs should

You might have noticed that ‘ought to’ is very similar to ‘should’. In many circumstances, they are interchangeable. Let’s look at one of the aforementioned examples and think about whether they feel different:

I ought to get more exercise.

I should get more exercise.

These are very similar, and there doesn’t appear to be a rule that everyone is following in regards to the difference. In my mind ‘ought to’ seems a little bit less subjective than ‘should’. So, if I was talking about, for example, a law, which has an objective nature to it, I would probably use ‘ought to’, as in:

I ought to pay for this computer.

In my mind, this is saying ‘there is a law which says not paying for this computer is stealing; therefore, I have a legal obligation to pay for the computer, whether I want to or not’. In contrast, in the example about doing more exercise, I don’t have any objective obligation, so I might use ‘should’ as in:

I should get more exercise.

This is more talking about my subjective obligation to exercise for a whole host of health related reasons. Having said this, ‘ought to’ can also be used when there is a subjective nature, as shown in the examples throughout, so it appears they can be used interchangeably. This one is largely up to you.

3) Auxiliary verbs as verb phrases

Auxiliary verbs are always part of a verb phrase, because they are always helping another verb. We see a lot about verb related phrases in the later section on phrases in detail. Let’s briefly look at some verb phrases with auxiliary verbs in them now:

I am tired today.

Here we have the subject ‘I’ + the auxiliary verb ‘am’ + the main verb ‘tired’. The combination of ‘am’ and ‘tired’ makes up a verb phrase.

The verbs can be separated by other words but are still often considered a verb phrase, as in:

I am very tired today.

Here we have the adverb ‘very’ which is modifying the verb ‘tired’ by telling us to what degree of tired the person is. Adverbs are not usually counted in verb phrases, so the verb phrase would still be considered ‘am tired’.

4) Questions

1) Discuss the differences between modal auxiliaries and the ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ auxiliary forms.

2) Discuss the different modal auxiliaries and their uses.

3) Discuss auxiliary verbs in verb phrases

Next up we are going to look at regular and irregular verbs.

17) Regular and irregular verbs

Posted in English Grammar