Tuesday January 29, 2013
By FADZILAH AMIN
YOU don’t have to be a grammar specialist to know that English has verbs like can, may, must, ought to, shall and will. These are used with the base form of the main verb to express possibility, ability (can), probability (may), necessity (must), obligation, advice (should, ought to), intention (shall and will) and so on. These verbs are called modal auxiliaries, but are often referred to as modals.
Thus we can say: “She can run very fast.” to indicate someone’s ability to run very fast, or “He may go to town tomorrow.” to indicate the probability of his going to town the next day. Most of these little verbs also have a past form, which bears some family resemblance to them – for example can/could, may/might, will/would (the past form comes after each verb). Thus we can say: “She could run very fast when she was a teenager.” or “He told me this morning that he might go to town tomorrow.” The second sentence is in reported speech and uses a past reporting verb (told); so may is changed to its past form might.
Some of these past forms have other meanings as well, but I won’t discuss those here. What stands out is that must (when it expresses necessity) has no past form that resembles it in any way. It has to share the past form of have to, which is had to. The verb have to can be used interchangeably with must in some contexts, though not in others.
This may be the reason why the verb have to is classified as a modal by several dictionaries and grammar books. But it doesn’t behave exactly like the true or core modals I mentioned above. This is what puzzled reader Ahmad Nafis, who drew my attention to the following sentence in the OALD: “With so many good new actors around, the older ones are having to look to their laurels.” He asked: “If have to is a modal verb, it cannot be in –ing form. So, if are having to is not a modal verb, what is it then?”
Before answering this question, let me explain that although some of the other modal verbs have past forms, they don’t have “-ing” forms. Neither do they have a singular form (with an “s” ending) when their subject is a singular noun or a third person singular pronoun. In contrast, have to has both these forms.
For example, we can’t say “You oughts to sleep early before an exam,” but we can say “He has to sleep early tonight.” using the singular form of have to. And we can’t say: “More Malaysians musting do their own housework nowadays since it’s hard to get foreign maids.” But we can say: “More Malaysians are having to do their own housework nowadays since it’s hard to get foreign maids.”, thus using the “-ing” form of have to that Ahmad Nafis quoted from the OALD.
Another difference between have to and the core modals is that the others don’t need the verb “do” (in any of its forms) when they are used in questions and negatives. For example, we say “Must I go to this meeting?”, but “Do I have to go to this meeting?” And we say “I can’t cope with this work.” but “I don’t have to attend the meeting after all.”
To get back to Ahmad Nafis’s question, what kind of verb is “are having to”, then? It is the plural present continuous form of have to which some linguists and grammarians now refer to as a semi-modal or marginal modal. The other modal auxiliaries I mentioned above are referred to as core or true modals.
A related verb, have got to has more characteristics of a core modal than have to. Although it can agree with a third person singular subject (like Ahmad or he) to become has got to, it only exists in the present perfect tense (have/has got to), does not have an “-ing” form and does not need a “do” verb in questions and negative sentences, e.g. in “Have you got to go?” and “I haven’t got to leave till seven.” (OALD)
Other verbs that are often classified as semi-modals are need and dare. They can be used either as main verbs or modals. Examples of the use of need and dare respectively as main verbs are: “He needed to work hard in order to succeed.” and: “She dares to be different from other girls of her own age.” When used in this way, the two verbs are not followed by the base form (= bare infinitive) of another verb as modals and semi-modals are. They are in fact followed by a “to-infinitive”, but can also be followed by nouns or pronouns, as in: “They need food.” or “They dared him to walk in the graveyard at night.”
Need and dare are normally used as modals only in negative sentences or questions. Some examples are: “Please tell her she need not (or needn’t) worry.”; “Need I say more?”; “He daren’t (dare not) tell his father his results.”; and “... dare we go one step further and ask whether the broader eurozone has finally managed to snatch victory . . .?”(telegraph.co.uk 23 July 2011)
In all the above sentences, need and dare are used like true modals. They are followed by bare infinitives of verbs: “need not worry”, “dare not tell”, “Need I say more?”; and “dare we go...?”. Also, the verb “do” is not used.
However, “dare” differs from true modals in that it is possible, but less common to use “do” with dare. Thus it is possible to say: “He doesn’t dare tell his father his results.”; and “... do we dare go one step further ....?” In fact, in a sentence like the following, do (or rather don’t) is necessary: “Don’t you ever dare beat her again!”
Also, unlike true modals, dare can also be used after some other modals. For example, we can ask someone: “Would you dare go to the moon?” Another example can be seen in this intriguing headline of a CNN online article: “The word Obama won’t dare say”.
In case you are interested in what that word is, it is not an offensive or obscene word, but just the tame word “stimulus”. President Obama had used it a lot in 2009, in connection with his job-creation initiative. We are told that the Republicans, in criticising the policy, had “managed to turn ‘stimulus’ into a four-letter word.” (edition.cnn.com/2011/09/13/opinion/granderson-obama-stimulus/index.html)
■ Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at email@example.com.