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Mode and mood are very similar. Grammatical mood refers to bound particles or morphemes (like -ed, -s in English) attaching themselves to verbs in order to express a range of positions from which one can speak. Mode, on the other hand, need not be expressed by any specific morpheme, and very often in English is represented by nothing at all (what is sometimes called the zero morpheme). Some examples:

  • Command mode: clean your office.
  • Indicative mode: Your closets need cleaning.
  • Hortative/Subjunctive mode: I suggest that he get there early. (I suggest that you get there early.)

Modality is a concept that covers a lot of territory. In the grammar of Port Royal, mode was understood as being closely linked to logic, and so one can speak of negative, affirmative, and emphatic modes. As will become apparent on some of the linked pages to come (particularly could), negation (and other adverbials) interact with modal markers in tricky ways, as in sentences like "You can't give these plants too much water."

However, in its wider acceptation, it is often equated with mood: realis, irrealis; subjunctives, imperatives, conditionals, etc. See the excellent page at wikipedia on grammatical mood. This page is primarily concerned with showing those morphemes (and zero morphemes) that mark mood in English.

Modal verbs in English

Some of the most salient characteristics of the basic list (excluding other modalizers like ought to, needn't etc.):

  • invariable
  • cannot be combined with other modal verbs or "to"
  • take an untensed VP complement (except when that VP complement is already understood)
  • are followed by the verbal base / bare infinitive
  • can be interpreted radically or epistemically (based on a root meaning or on a scale of probability ranging from cannot to must and will). Often the radical meaning and epistemic meaning are difficult to disentangle.

can could capability / possibility
will would future / certainty / volonté
shall should value judgement / necessity
may might authorization / probability
must logical necessity / certainty

Modality of the markers to, Ø and -d

In English, the infinitive is traditionally thought of as including "to". This may not be wrong insofar as "to" provides rupture with the modal and temporal plane in a way that participials don't. Participials (whether in -ing or in -EN) could be said to inherit their finite determination from the matrix clause (-ING is contemporaneous with it, -EN anterior to it), whereas with TO + infinitive this isn't the case, there is a clear rupture from the temporal plane.

However it is necessary to compare TO + infinitive with the bare infinitive or verbal base, which will be the subject of the next two subsections.

Modality of to

"To" is a versatile word (the 3rd most common word in English). Not only can you can begin and end sentences with it, but there are very few verbs in English that are excluded from preceding or following "to". The "true" modals are the only example that comes to mind: "to" can can never precede or follow may, will can, shall (with or without -d) and must. (The interesting exception, though quite restricted, is the noun form "will".) These modals can likewise never precede one another (*will can, *should may, etc). So for the time being, let's postulate that "to" is likewise in some ways modal in its functions.

Like all these other modals "to" can immediately precede an uninflected verb, but unlike all these other modals it can also precede a gerund (or if you prefer: an uninflected verb + -ing), in which case we can "confidently" call it a preposition:

  • We're looking forward to seeing them again.
  • They want to see the museum when they come this time.

Unlike the other pure modals "to" can follow a verb, but like pure modals it can introduce a verb phrase (which prepositions cannot do, without the help of -ing)
Unlike other modals it can be repeated many times in the same sentence, ultimately linking multiple Verb Phrases to the subject.

  • They should [VP really like the exhibit.]
  • We will [VP have to [VP put aside an entire afternoon to [VP see it]]].
  • Do you think they're [VP going to [VP want to [VP spend the whole afternoon there?]]
  • You're not [VP going to [VP want to [VP forget to [VP wear comfortable shoes !]]]]] Trust me you're not going to [VP want to ]!

As the last three examples show, "to" is much more like a matrëshka (Russian doll) than the other modal verbs. In #4 The subject of "want", "forget", and "wear" is identical to the subject of "go", in each case it is just the head on top of a sequentially smaller body of words, a more limited predicative relation. And, co-text or context permitting, this smaller body of words -- poof -- can be reduced to nothing at all. Our "to" is a pretty potent modal.

But is it really a modal? Forget for the moment that it's also a preposition (to the lighthouse!), and a particle (It was noon before Buck Mulligan finally came to), and just concentrate on this more specialized context. Perhaps it's just a conjunction after all:

  • They would walk and talk and chalk and stalk their way around the pool hall every Friday night.

Except -- and here I hope you agree -- conjunctions just don't quite feel like Russian dolls -- they're more like a people mover at the airport, they bump us along the sentence until we reach the end... "walk and talk" can stand alone in ways that "gonna' and wanna'" can't... because gonna' and wanna' are wannabe kings that need a regime to make themselves whole. And they can snatch that regime right out of the subject of conversation.

  • Is she going to finish?
  • She doesn't seem to want to try to.
  • No, but he really needs to.
  • Yep, it's obvious (that) he should.

I see "to" as a convenient tunnel, that the grammatical subject slips through in order to reach the head of the sentence (probably through the letter "o")
I see its modal value as being quite neutral in general... though much more needs to be said.

Modality Ø

command mode

  • Marie-Laure insisted/demanded that he resign. cf. [1]
  • Come on!

advice mode

  • He should be ready.
  • I suggest he be ready

(e- / pro-) vocative mode

  • (May) God save the queen.
  • (May God) Damn it!
  • (May God) Bless you... (sneeze mode ^ @.^)

"Final causer" mode

  • I (had/made) him bake the cookies.

dubitative mode

  • Why walk?
  • Him?! Walk?

The presence of a "zero modal" or "to" seems to have little other function than to break off what you are saying from the specific context in which you are saying it.

Arguably "to" conserves meanings associated with "path" and "goal" ([[telicity]}) from its homonym preposition.

Modality of -d


Could you tell me... Hadn't you better... Shouldn't she...


  • Had I known...


  • If you did that, we're in a lot of trouble!
  • Should she call...

Quality (past-tense adjectives)

  • dead, tired, long-lived, long-legged, learned, etc.

Modality of -ing

Lexical modality

  • prefixes like un-, pseudo-, quasi-
  • adverbs like perhaps, certainly, maybe
  • particles like out, up ?

Future explorations

Odd hybrids


periphrastics specifying? to

ought to / needs to
be able to

page Wikiversité

en cours de revision 02/2012


La modalité a eu divers définitions dans l'histoire de la linguistique. Certains [ref. to Port Royal?] ont mis l'accent sur l'aspect logique: phrase affirmative, phrase negative, phrase interrogative. Clairement entre ces trois pôles il y a divers degrés de probabilité et de certitude qui doivent passer pour nuancer des propos.

  • ? / not -- en général, exige do-support pour les marqueurs du temps -d / -s / Ø avec des verbes lexicaux (Les modaux purs, be, have, et dans certains contextes, get ne font pas appel à do-support)
    • Did you hear the news?
    • I didn't find out until a few minutes ago.

Néanmoins, la modalité logique restreint de façon artificielle l'usage du terme modalité linguistique. Néanmoins, il est bon à souligner que la modalité proprement dit linguistique peut être compris simplement comme une série de canaux, protocols, ou voix qui permet d'indiquer le "spin" de ce qu'on dit (+ / - / ?)

Modaux "purs"

Donc ce n'est pas uniquement les verbes dits auxiliaires modaux tout seuls que les gens utilisent pour exprimer le mode dans lequel ce qu'ils disent doit être compris. Néanmoins, les modaux "pures" (c'est-à-dire ceux qui ne s'accordent pas à la 3e personne de singulier) sont un passage obligé:

  • may/might
  • can/could
  • shall/should
  • will/would
  • must/

Avec ses auxiliaires, il est intéressant de constater que seul must est à part, n'ayant pas deux formes. Autrement, chaque modal a deux formes issues d'une combination avec le morphème -d. Entre, "you shall not sin" et "you should not sin", on peut voir assez facilement l'utilité de ce morphème pour marquer une distance plus respectueuse dans le rapport entre les gens qui parlent. Quelqu'un qui dirait shall parle avec une autorité plus grande que celui qui écoute, tandis qu'avec should les deux peuvent avoir le même standing social.

Une deuxième distinction assez important dans les discussions sur la modalité est l'axe radical/epistemic. Dans une phrase comme "She must be at the office.", nous avons deux interpretations possibles selon le contexte... "She needs to be at the office" (nécessité objective) et "She is sure to be at the office" (100% probabilité). Pour tout ce qui est de la probabilité, il s'agit de l'episteme (modalité épistemique), mais quand il s'agit de la nécessité, c'est le sens radical du lexème "must" qui prime. Ceci n'est pas propre à l'anglais, les modaux comme "pouvoir" et "devoir" sont également ambigu en français (probabilité v. capacité) (certitude v. obligation).

En anglais, néanmoins, sur le plan formel de la morphologie il y a trois faits intéressant:

  • pas d'accord <-- incompatibilité modale
  • incompatibilité avec to lui même potentiellement un marqueur de modalité dans les constructions paraphrastiques (have to, got to, ought to, needs to etc.) <-- incompatibilité aspectuelle/modale
  • incompatibilité avec -ing <-- incompatibilité aspectuelle (sans l'ajout de copule "be")


To be or not to be

Ici, il est tentant de dire que "to" est un marqueur de modalité qui indique la non-actualisation du prédicat, autrement dit qui agit sur l'axe réalis/irréalis. Quiconque qui aurait ruminé cette question se serait peut-être rendu compte que ni "être" ni "ne pas être" auraient été pleinement réalisés ou actualisés par celui qui parle. En linguistique anglais il est souvent dit que "to" marque une visée ou un vers (towards). Même si souvent on pense de l'actualisation ou de réalisation sur le plan aspectuel (parfait / imparfait), il faut aussi comprendre que cette orientation est une marque modale.

  • They were both to be promoted next year.

Base verbale / marqueur zéro

  • Go ahead.
  • Bless you. / Be cool.

Là nous avons deux bases verbales. Le premier équivaut en français à un impératif (vas-y), le deuxième à un subjonctif (que tu sois béni (May God bless you)), sois zen). Des verbes de suggéstion peuvent également être suivi par la base verbale (cela fait parti du registre soutenu dans l'anglais américain).

  • I suggest you be there by 4
  • I insisted that she return the stolen lollipops.

En anglais britannique un modal comme should peut introduire le base verbale.

-d et le conditionnel

  1. If she knew, she didn't let on.
  2. If I had known, I wouldn't have come.
  3. (*)If I'd've known, I wouldn't have come.

Là nous sommes devant une autre situation qui tiennent à la modalité, l'irréalis (1) ou les contre-factuels (2 / 3 n'est pas standard). Dans le premier exemple, l'enonciateur n'est pas certain si la personne dont il parle connait la réalité ou l'irréalité du thème non exprimé. Dans le deuxième et troisième il est clair que l'enoncé introduit par "if" (rupteur du plan modal) n'est pas le cas. En français le marqueur privilegié pour cette fonction du langage et la série de terminaisons dites imparfaites, qui peuvent aussi servir pour le discours indirect (comme en anglais), et pour le discours rapporté (le President aurait dit en privé que...) (ce qui n'est pas possible en anglais).

-s et la modalité neutre

Nous avons vu l'incompatibilité des modaux dits purs avec le marqueur du 3e singulier. Pourrait-on proposer donc qu'au délà de l'accord, le -s fonctionne comme marqueur d'une modalité neutre?


Le mode est un peu comme un canal de transmission. On module nos énoncés pour faire comprendre à ceux avec qui on partage si l'on est très ou peu sur de ce qu'on dit, ou bien combien de distance nous voulons prendre de ce qu'on dit (par politesse, humilité, autorité, etc.)