Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Structural Classification of English Modals

Have you ever wondered which modals can be used where?  Or why ‘will be able to go’ is grammatical but ‘will can go’ is not?  Or why some modals require to before the modified verb while others don’t?   Then read on…


Structural Classification of English Modals is the fourth in a series of five papers dealing with the basic grammatical structure and behavior of verbal constructions in modern English.  These five works: Voice in English:  Semantic Implications of the Passive-Active Paradigm (2007), Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (2007), A Logical Classification of English Aspects (2007), Structural Classification of English Modals (2009), and An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity (2009) are intended to provide a holistic overview of the core functions of the language and their inherent interactions so that a better understanding of modern English grammar may be attained.


Modality is a contentious topic within the linguistics community with a vast diaspora of theories, approaches, interpretations, and classification schemes – some complementary and some far from it.  English relies on modal expressions more than many languages and possesses a vast complexity of mood and modal forms.  While there may be much debate as to which moods are or are not present in English usage, there is little to deny that mood plays an integral role in the meaning and structure of utterances in the language.  Mood is expressed in English via an ever changing number of marked and unmarked forms.  Regardless of specific modal usage being a point of contention among linguists and grammarians, language analysis shows a clear pattern of change in recent centuries toward increased usage of marked modal forms.  Many of these marked forms involve specific abnormal word orders, adverbial or prepositional cues, qualifying clauses or phrases, and verbal constructions functioning in an auxiliary manner.  It is not the specific moods, nor the meanings expressed by them that are the subject of this paper.  Rather, this is a discussion of these various marked verbal auxiliary forms used to manifest modality within the language.

This paper first discusses the auxiliary system of English utterances as outlined in Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (Ward 2007) and in particular the role modals as auxiliaries within this system.  It should be stated that the term modal, as discussed in this paper refers to any single word or words used as a marked form for expressing modality.  There is no credence given to terminology such as true modal, semi-modal, modal approximates, or the like.  Terminology such as the aforementioned reflect a  very limited and closed-minded approach to the study of modality and have more a place in efforts to classify structures based on historical views of modality than on the usage of the forms themselves.  As pertains to this discussion, modals express modality, and any marked form – whether a single verb, phrase, or other structure which together or alone expresses modality is a modal.  Upon adequate background discussion including word order, auxiliaries, and aspect, an accounting of all currently known structural classes of English modals shall be given with special attention paid to their form, behavior, and effect on the forms they subordinate.  Finally as thorough an inventory of modal forms as possible will be provided with reference to their respective structural classifications.

Continue reading, or download the entire paper to your computer:

Structural Classification of English Modals


December 17, 2009 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] of my work has resulted in a classification system for modals (found here) that seek to explain why some verbs, or forms, or other such sentences don’t mesh with the […]

    Pingback by I HAVE YET to figure this out… « CALLE Teacher's Blog | December 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] ought, need, and dare have even different behaviors, then this paper may be of interest to you. Structural Classification of English Modals CALLE It provides a scheme of classifying the various modals in English based on their structure, […]

    Pingback by Understanding Modals | January 7, 2011 | Reply

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    Comment by kjldfsa | February 15, 2011 | Reply

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