Author Topic: The strange grammar of “need” as modal auxiliary  (Read 14439 times)

Joe Carillo

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The strange grammar of “need” as modal auxiliary
« on: August 31, 2022, 11:25:00 PM »
A hallmark for correctness in English grammar is subject-verb agreement, which demands that in a sentence, the subject and verb must always agree in number. If the subject is singular, its verb must take the singular form (“She dreams every night”); if the subject is plural, the verb must take its plural form as well (“They quarrel a lot.”)

What looked like an outright violation of this rule evidently bothered a columnist of a Manila-based newspaper so he e-mailed this question to the Forum 11 years ago: “Why is the third-person form of the verb ‘need’ not in the present tense in the sentence ‘He need not pay to enter the sports arena’?” (I won’t identify the columnist here to respect his privacy.)

That sentence construction admittedly could puzzle not just a few nonnative English learners and English teachers alike, for it’s quite obvious that the subject “he” being a pronoun in the third-person singular, the verb “need” should likewise take the third-person, singular present-tense form “needs” following the subject-verb agreement rule.

But what might surprise many of us is that the sentence “He need not pay to enter the sports arena” is grammatically correct and doesn’t violate the subject-verb agreement rule. It is using the word “need” not as the intransitive verb that means “to be in want” nor as the transitive verb that means “to be in need of,” but as a modal auxiliary in the sense of “be under necessity or obligation to.”

There are 24 modal auxiliary verbs in all in English, namely “will” (for asking, possibility, suggestion), “would” (for requesting), “shall” (for asking, possibility), “should” (suggestion, seeking advice), “can” (ability, possibility), “could” (ability, requesting), “may” (possibility, permission, offering), “might” (possibility, suggestion), “must” (certainty, strong probability, prohibition), “dare” (have the courage, challenge, negative force, interrogation), “need” (oblige, necessitate), “used to” (habitual action in the past), and “ought to” (obligation, strong likelihood).

From the above functions and attributes of the modal auxiliaries, we can see that modality is about a speaker’s or a writer’s attitude towards the world. By using modal words and expressions, he or she can express certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity, and ability.

A modal auxiliary works in tandem with a main verb to express a modal modification, meaning to denote an action or state in some manner other than as simple fact, such as a wish, desire, conditionality, or probability. A unique characteristic of the English modal auxiliary is that unlike main verbs, they don’t have “-s” and “-ing” forms. This is why in the particular case of the modal auxiliary “need,” it doesn’t have the “s” in the sentence “He need not pay to enter the sports arena.”

The modal “need” is typically used in three grammatical situations: (1) in negative statements, as in “You need not go now”; (2) in questions, as in “Need he go now?” instead of “Does he have to go now”; and (3) in hypothetical statements, as in the modal sentence “I asked whether she need travel at night” instead of the nonmodal “I asked whether she needs to travel at night.” In the sentence in question here, “He need not pay to enter the sports arena,” the modal “need” works with the adverb “not” to negate the statement, giving the sense of “not under necessity or obligation” to pay. 

The strange thing about the modal “need” is that it grammatically malfunctions when used in the positive sense. The resulting sentence certainly doesn’t sound right: “He need pay to enter the sports arena.” To make that sentence work properly, “need” has to be used as a typical main verb working with the infinitive “to pay,” as in “He needs to pay to enter the sports arena.”

This essay, 2114th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the September 1, 2022 digital edition of The Manila Times, ©2022 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay online in The Manila Times:
“The strange grammar of “need” as modal auxiliary”

(Next week: Using the causative verbs in our writing)         September 8, 2022

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« Last Edit: September 01, 2022, 01:35:48 AM by Joe Carillo »