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The strange grammar of ‘need’ as modal auxiliary

 

JOSE A. CARILLO

Many years ago, I was surprised but delighted to receive an email from a columnist of a Manila-based daily asking these two perplexing grammar questions:

“1. Why is the third person form of the verb ‘need’ not in the present tense in the sentence ‘He need not pay to enter the sports arena’?

“2. What is the right noun form when ‘respective’ or ‘respectively’ is used with people’s names, as in the sentence ‘Gen. Cruz, Col. Santos and Capt. Ocampo took their respective places (place) as befitting their rank’?”

To Oscar P.’s first question, I replied that it admittedly could puzzle many nonnative English speakers that the verb “need” in “He need not pay to enter the sports arena” isn’t in the third-person, singular present-tense form “needs” considering that the subject “he” is a pronoun in the third-person singular. This looks every bit like a violation of the subject-verb agreement rule, which requires that for a singular subject, the operative verb should likewise take the singular form.


But that sentence actually doesn’t violate the subject-verb agreement rule, for it uses the word “need” as a modal auxiliary, not as the intransitive verb that means “to be in want” or as the transitive verb that means “to be in need of.” Here, “need” belongs to the same functional category as the modal auxiliaries “can,” “must,” “might” and “may” that work in tandem with a main verb to express a modal modification. Recall that modals denote an action or state in some manner other than as simple fact, such as a wish, desire, conditionality, or probability, and that English modals (unlike its verbs) don’t have “-s” and “-ing” forms. This is why “need” doesn’t have the “s” in the modal sentence “He need not pay to enter the sports arena.”

The modal “need” is typically used in three grammatical situations: in negative statements, as in “You need not go now”; in questions, as in “Need he go now?” instead of “Does he have to go now”; and in hypothetical statements, as in the modal sentence “I asked whether she need travel at night” instead of the nonmodal “I asked whether she needs to travel at night.” In the sentence in question here, “He need not pay to enter the sports arena,” the modal “need” works with the adverb “not” to negate the statement, giving the sense of “not under necessity or obligation” to pay.

The strange thing about the modal “need” is that it grammatically malfunctions when used in the positive sense. The resulting sentence certainly doesn’t sound right: “He need pay to enter the sports arena.” To make that sentence work properly, “need” has to be used as a typical verb working with the infinitive “to pay,” as in “He needs to pay to enter the sports arena.”

Now about Oscar P.’s second question: The adjective “respective” and the adverb “respectively” denote that two or more entities in a serial or enumerative list separately have a possession, property, or attribute of the same kind or class, as in the sentence he presented: “Gen. Cruz, Col. Santos and Capt. Ocampo took their respective places as befitting their rank.” In such lists that use “respective,” the common possession, property or attribute will always be a noun in the plural form modified by “respective.”

An interesting corollary question is how to use the adverb “respectively” instead of the adjective “respective” in that same situation. This is the typical form that sentence will take: “As befitting their rank, Cruz, Santos and Ocampo took their places as general, coronel and captain, respectively.” Here, the adverb “respectively” modifies the entire enumerative sequence introduced by the common possession, property or attribute, which must always be plural in form.

(Next:Do we say “in the street” or “on the street”?)

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com and on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/jacarillo. Follow him on Twitter.com: @J8Carillo. E-mail: [email protected].

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