Кребель Ю.О. The problem of modal verbs of the modern English language

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Кребель Юлія Олександрівна – студентка Педагогічного інституту Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка, напрям підготовки «Початкова освіта», кафедра іноземних мов і методик їх навчання Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка

У статті розглядаються проблеми модальних дієслів сучасної англійської мови. Англійська система дієслова є досить простою відносно більшості західноєвропейських мов, але складною у порівнянні зі східними мовами. Розуміння модальності англійських дієслів є запорукою правильного вживання їх у процесі говоріння і адекватного сприйняття на слух.

Ключові слова: модальність, модальні дієслова, модальність об’єктивна, модальність суб’єктивна.

В статье рассматриваются проблемы модальных глаголов современного английского языка. Английская система глагола является достаточно простой по отношению к большинству западноевропейских языков, но и сложной по сравнению с восточными языками. Понимание модальности английских глаголов является залогом правильного употребления их в процессе говорения и адекватного восприятия на слух.

Ключевые слова: модальность, модальные глаголы, модальность объективная, модальность субъективна.

This paper considers the problem of modal verbs in the modern English language. The English verb system is simpler than most Western European languages, but more complicated in comparison with Eastern languages. Understanding the modalities of English verbs is the key of their right usage in the process of speaking and adequate listening. "

Key words: modality, modal verbs, modality objective, subjective modality.


Relevance of the topic

Nowadays the issue of learning English is very important. Most people who teach English are in fact non-native speakers of that language. They are state school teachers in countries around the world. Also, more and more learners of all ages begin to learn this language. But as language, it presents difficulties not so long for non-native speakers but for native speakers of English. For instance, there are several problems that English learning speakers have with English verbs. Basically, however, the English verb system is fairly simple (more simple than most western European languages) but a little more complicated than most oriental languages. One of the most difficult aspects of learning English is modality [1].

Consideration of modal words as parts of speech is one of the most interesting problems of modern linguistics.

The analysis of research

The problem of language means expressing the concept of modality is one of the central problems of native and foreign linguistics L. S. Barkhudarov, V. V. Vinogradov, Z. K. Dolgopolov, L. D. Dolinskaya, S. S. Ermolaeva, E. A. Zvereva, G. V. Kolshansky, E. E. Kurland , I. L. Likhareva, L. L. Nelyubin, I. G. Rickman, V. F. Shabalin, B. B. Shuvalov , W. S. Allen, R. A. Close, M. E. Ehrman, L. P. Krylova, F. R. Palmer, R. W. Zandvoort, and others. Language provides grammatical category "modality " their language means .

The question of the category of modality in linguistics remains controversial and still unresolved due to its multi-dimensionality. Noteworthy in this regard the work of authors such as Vinogradov V., Grepl M., Yermolayeva L., E. Zvereva, Zolotova G., Kolshansky G., Natanzon E., Panfilov V., Shabalin V., Aijmer K., Hermeren L., Palmer F.

There are the following modal meanings in English: opportunity, will, please, enabling, disabling, and the probability value, which is the most interesting and widely developed in various disciplines, for example, in mathematics, physics, and it is an essential element in the modern world as a whole - of modern philosophy.

In linguistics, the concept of probability is still poorly understood, despite the fact that it also revealed a number of papers by Belyaeva E., Aijmer K., Hermeren L., Leech G. etc.

The purpose formulation of research

The purpose of this article is to study the functioning of linguistic lexical and grammatical means of expressing modality in modern English language.

Also, it is given an idea of the category of modality in modern English, to give the system characteristic of the English modal verbs, modal words and syntax as the primary means of expressing modality in modern English language [2].

The main material

To understand better the problems with modal verbs it is better to have a little idea about them. A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality (that is, an auxiliary verb that can be used to change the modality of a sentence). The key way to identify a modal verb is by defectiveness (a defective verb is a verb with an incomplete conjugation). In addition, modal verbs do not take the inflection –s or –es in the third person singular, unlike other verbs [3].

The English modal verbs can be divided into two kinds of auxiliaries: the primary auxiliaries (be, have and do)and the secondary auxiliaries (can, could, must, have to, should, ought to, be able to...) [3].

One of the most common problems with primary auxiliaries is the first position of the auxiliary when we formulate a question (“Does this mean we have to do it again?”) because some languages (such as Spanish) do not need them. For example, Spanish and Catalan have only one category of verbs and they all show the normal range of tenses (present, past, future, conditionals). There is no separate category of modal auxiliaries as in English and learners find the concept difficult to grasp.

As we said before, the three main auxiliaries are BE, HAVE and Do. But sometimes they are auxiliaries and sometimes they are “proper” main verbs. This is another typical mistake of learners of English as a Foreign Language: to confuse auxiliary with verb. For instance: -He did nothing (verb) -Why did you do that? (auxiliary) -I have a dog (verb) -I have sold it (auxiliary)

Modals are difficult to grasp because as modal and modality are rarely explained to an English as a Foreign Language student, the form of modals does not follow the conventional rules of grammar, and there are so many meanings of modals that students often get confused about which modal to use [1].

One of the main problems with modals is problems with formation. There are few problems that English as a Foreign Language students have with the formation of modals. First, combining a modal auxiliary with a simply present verb, “to” is not necessary. That is, using “to” unnecessarily: He should to eat his dinner/He should eat his dinner [4].

Second, subject-verb agreement does not apply to modals (that is, you cannot create a third singular person formulation, a past form, etc.): She can jumps/She can jump or Marina cans cook / Marina can cook.

Third, two modals cannot be used together in the same sentence: Will can fly / Will be able to fly.

Fourth, “ought to” only appears in this form. There is no past tense. It is entirely independent (that is, no connected with other verbs).

Fifth, to combine lexical verb in past with the modal verb. John could heard the bell [1].

Also, there are problems in the phonological context although they are not so important than the previous problems. For instance, strong and weak form of “can” : Can /kæn/, /kən/.

Students usually use weak forms but it is not allowed to use always the same form. For example, in questions it is usually used the strong form to make the question and the weak form to answer the question.

As we said before, one of the biggest problems (if not the biggest) of English as a Foreign Language students face with modals is their meaning. Each modal can have more than one meaning and each meaning is a member of an inter-related system. When a speaker chooses to use one modal, s/he is deciding not to use any of the other modal verbs.

The problem lies not in the surface positioning of modals nor in their wide range of meanings, but in associating the right modal with the right meaning.

So, that is one of the main problems with modals: each modal verb has many functions and their meaning is difficult for English as a Foreign Language students. Many of them are not aware of the subtle shades of meaning that are found within the meaning of a modal and that’s are found within the meaning of a modal and that’s due to the most common way to teach modals in a list [2].

The difficulties in interpreting an already complex system have often been compounded by teaching methods that present modals as a list. When they are taught as a list they are presented like regular vocabulary. Let’s see it with an example. The opposite of “you must be here at 8” (obligation) is usually “you don’t have to be here at 8”(lack of obligation –choice), while “must” in “you must not drink the water” (prohibition) has a different meaning from “must” in “you must not be a native speaker” (deduction). This complexity takes considerable work for most English language learners. What we can deduct from this is students memorize the modals with their accompanying meanings but they may have no idea of the subtle social and cultural information each choice conveys. So a better way to teach them is as a system. [4].

Modals can also appear in the perfect aspect with a have + en construction. This can also be a difficult area for students: “The problems students experience with the perfect modal construction can be attributed to the fact that they often believe the addition of the perfect construction adds “perfectiveness” to the meaning” [5, 36].

Generally, the students understand or produce a grammatical utterance but the meaning may be incorrect or misunderstood by the student. If the teacher does not present enough information about the perfect form and its complexities in meaning, then the student may over generalize the rules.

Also, the negation of the modals can be complex for students. For example, adding “not” after the modal does not always give the opposite meaning (because it can over generalize the idea rule again).

In the scope of intercultural issues, modals require that the characteristics of the social situation can be taken into account. Power distance, for example, can determine which modal to use in a given situation. In some languages where modals do not exist (such as Arabic) students have to confront the English modal system and the dynamics of power relationships are different [2].

Something to take into account is that, when teaching modals, there are not be an issue of comprehension of the modal system and although not all languages have modal auxiliaries, the concept of modality is universal.

Also, another way that students understand better the idea of modals is to use dialogues showing the different cultural context that are relevant to communicating (using all the different uses of modal verbs).

Explaining how modals are as system through the use of definitions and English as a Foreign Language linguistic theory is a good way to explain modals. We cannot forget about a greater exposure to real life through school, organizations, TV...For communicative learning is much better than any list [2; 4].

To conclude we can say that in the realm of grammar, teaching the modal system of English can be compared to walking a tightrope. The balance normally required in pedagogical grammars when presenting material, that is simplified enough for students to understand is magnified to fold in the modal system. “

The teacher is required to present an extremely complex system with enough intricacy to illustrate the relationship of the modal and auxiliaries to teach other and their place in a semantic field.

The intercultural aspect of teaching the meanings of modals has not been documented extensively to our knowledge and maybe the best is to suggest that this is yet another dimension to consider in teaching the modal system: How modals broke up in English (e.g. probability v social interactions) how other languages express modal auxiliaries. Modality is a universal concept but that all no languages have modal auxiliaries [1; 5].

Teaching modals requires a thorough knowledge of the modal system and how it is systematic. Even though the prospect of teaching modal auxiliaries is overwhelming, if you understand the modal system and its systematicity, then teaching modals well is accessible [3].


It is explored that in the modern English language there are grammatical and lexical means of expressing modality. Grammatical means are realized in such modal verbs as must, should, ought, will / would, can / could, may / might, need. The data verbs make weaken their original meaning such as desirability, obligation, necessity, etc. and transmitting only the ratio of the content of the speaker's general assumptions. Modal verbs convey different shades of modality, starting with the assumption of bordering on certainty and ending speculation in which the speaker is not sure.


  1. Бархударов Л. С., Штелинг Д. А. Грамматика английского языка / Л. С. Бархударов, Д. А. Штелинг. – Москва, 1973. – 178 с.
  2. Гордон Е. М. Грамматика современного английского языка (A Grammar of Present-day English) / Е. М. Гордон. – Москва, 1986. – 104 с.
  3. Жигадло В. Н., Иванова И. П., Иофик Л. Л. Современный английский язык / В. Н. Жигадло, И. П. Иванов, Л. Л. Иофик. – Москва, 1956. – 188 с.
  4. Качалова К. Н., Израилевич Е. Е. Практическая грамматика английского языка (в двух томах) / К. Н. Качалова, Е. Е. Израилевич. – Москва, 1998. – 256 с.
  5. Крылова И. П., Гордон Е. М. Грамматика современного английского языка. (A Grammar of Present-day English Practical Course) / И. П. Крылова, Е. М. Гордон. – Москва, 1999. –156 с.

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