Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Modal auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, follow a different set of rules from regular verbs, and people use them differently in different parts of the country. For example, people who live in the South often use something called a double modal in sentences such as We might could harvest the corn.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #435

Although double modals certainly aren’t Standard English, and I don’t recommend using them in formal nonfiction writing, in the dialects where they are used, they are subject to the same kind of unspoken rules of grammar as any other kind of construction. For example, in a recent paper titled “We might should oughta take a second look at this: A syntactic re-analysis of double modals in Southern United States English,” (https://www.msu.edu/~hastyjam/images/Hasty%20in%20press.pdf) Daniel Hasty summarizes earlier research on double modals, and notes that only may, might, and must are used as the first modal in a double modal. In addition, citing this previous research, he describes some restrictions on how you form questions with double modals. So to make a question out of the sentence You might could go to the store for me, speakers of dialects with double modals will accept Could you might go to the store for me? and Might could you go to the store for me?, but not Might you could go to the store for me?

There’s a lot more to say about modal auxiliaries, but it will have to wait for another episode.

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, is a regular contributor to Visual Thesaurus, and blogs at http://literalminded.wordpress.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.