Effects of negation essay

August 18, 2012

The effects of negation on the meanings of modal verbs in English

Modal verbs are a very complex area of English grammar. The main function of modal verbs is the expression of attitude, proposition or opinion. These attitudes can cover a wide range of possibilities including obligation, asking disapproval, advising ability, possibility, necessity, and so on. Each of modal verbs can have more than one meaning. In the case when modal auxiliary verbs are used to express negation, the changes in their meaning can create the interesting effect. In this work I tried to analyze the particular cases of modal expression of negotiation, covering the main issues of modal auxiliary verbs in short.


Negation is defined as a grammatical term, defining the process of turning an affirmative (positive) sentence or clause into a negative one: from They came to They did not come. Sometimes it is referred to as a contrast in polarity.

In English, a sentence is usually negated through the verb, by inserting a negative particle not or its contraction n’t: It is raining becoming It is not/isn’t raining.  If no auxiliary verb is present, the relevant form of the auxiliary do (do, does, or did, according to tense and person) is inserted to make the sentence negative: I know him becoming I do not/don’t know him. (McArthur, 1).

As Horn and Kato 2000 put it:  “Negative utterances are a core feature of every system of human communication and of no system of animal communication. Negation and its correlates – truth-values, false messages, contradiction, and irony – can thus be seen as defining characteristics of the human species.” (p.1)

Modality is a category of linguistic meaning having to do with the expression of possibility and necessity.

Modal verb – is a verb used with another verb to express the speaker’s attitudes or opinions like judgment, assessment or intention, that is, the modality (Hoye, 40). These attitudes can cover a wide range of possibilities including obligation, asking for and giving permission, disapproval, advising, logical deduction, ability, possibility, necessity, absence of necessity and so on. The problem with each modal verb is that it can have more that one meaning and the interpretation of a particular modal will depend heavily on the context in which it is being used.
There are central modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would and marginal modal verbs, sometimes called semi-modal verbs: dare, need, ought to, used to. They can be used to express these ideas about the past, present and future.

All share the following characteristics:

(1) They are auxiliary verbs.

(2) They have no third-person -s form: She may go, They may go (contrast She goes, They go).

(3) They have no non-finite forms (no infinitive, -ing participle, or -ed participle)

(4) All except ought and used are followed by the bare infinitive without to.

(5) They have idiosyncratic semantic and formal features, affecting particularly their use in the past tense and in negation. (TOM McARTHUR, par.3)

According to Swan, “One (of the meanings of modal verbs) is to do with degrees of certainty: modal verbs can be used to say for instance that a situation is certain, probable, possible or impossible.” (Swan, 334)

The most definite degree of certainty can be expressed with will and won’t, then by must and can’t/couldn’t, should and shouldn’t, may and may not, and might/could and mightn’t, which express the least definite degree of certainty.

Modal verbs are difficult to define in any language because of the wide range of pragmatic uses of modal verbs by native speakers. Some of the more common definitions (in no particular order) of the modal verbs in English are:

  • can – ability, permission, possibility, request
  • could – ability, permission, possibility, request, suggestion
  • may – permission, probability, request
  • might – possibility, probability, suggestion
  • must – deduction, necessity, obligation, prohibition
  • shall – decision, future, offer, question, suggestion
  • should – advice, necessity, prediction, recommendation
  • will – decision, future, intention, offer, prediction, promise, suggestion
  • would – conditional, habit, invitation, permission, preference, request, question, suggestion

The meaning of modal verbs can be difficult because they all have more than one meaning, e.g.

  • She can’t play the piano very well. (she does not have the skill or ability).
  • You can’t smoke in here. (You are not allowed to).

Some modals can be used with various time references – present, past or future; others are restricted to one or two time frames. Some modals can be used in negative expressions, others cannot, and sometimes when used in a negative expression the usage changes.

Modal verbs always appear in the first position at the beginning of the verb phrase in English. Unlike other verbs, modal verbs do not show tense or number.

To form a negative statement, the word not is placed after the first auxiliary. It should be noted that the auxiliary can, followed by not, is written as a single word. For example:

She can work. - She cannot work.
They should have worked. They should not have worked.

When negating a verb phrase containing a modal verb, the negation sometimes applies to the modal and in some cases – to the proposition: for example, the modal is negated in You may not leave (You are not allowed to leave), whereas the proposition is negated in I may not be on time (It is possible that I won’t be on time).

The difference may affect the choice of the auxiliary: for example, must (It must be your sister on the phone) usually forms its negative equivalent through may not for negating the proposition (It may not be your sister on the phone: It is possible that it is not your sister on the phone) and can’t for modal negation (It can’t be your sister on the phone: It is not possible that it is your sister on the phone). (McArthur, par.5)

In negative and interrogative contexts, dare and need may be either modals (I daren’t object; Need I say more?) or full verbs with preceding do and following to-infinitive (I don’t dare to object). Elsewhere, they are full verbs: I dare/dared to object; I need/needed to say more. (McArthur, par.5)

The modal verb “have to” differs from other modal verbs in that it can have the category of person and number and all tense-aspect forms as well as verbals. Interrogative and negative forms of have to are built up with the help of the auxiliary verb “to do”. In its meaning it s similar to its meaning with ‘Must”

He doesn’t have to do what she tells him.

Have to is used to replace must when must cannot be used, namely,

-       to express past necessity or obligation (We had to do it again)

-        to express absence of necessity since ’MUST’ + not means prohibition (Compare: You must not do it./ You don’t have to make another copy of the document).

-       to express future obligation .The future of have to makes obligation more precise. (You’ll have to take a taxi if you want to catch a train.)


Modal need is restricted to contexts that are negative in a certain way and are characterized as “non-assertive” (Palmer, 230; Quirk et al. 1985; Duffley 1994)


- He needn’t come (Negation)

- There is nothing you need trouble about (Shifted negation)

I need hardly say how glad I am (Semi-negatives)


Need is a special verb since as an auxiliary it is almost always negative and it is also a lexical verb as in sentences like he needs to speak to you now, while it acts as a modal verb in sentences such as you needn’t come to work tomorrow where it has the same meaning as don’t have to.

I can say that modality conveys certain degrees of certainty and possibility, using a number of modal verbs. Modal verbs represent a very complex area of English grammar belonging to a larger group of auxiliary verbs and being sometimes restricted to one or two time frames. Not all modals can be used in negative expressions and sometimes the usage is changed when the verb is negated. I have demonstrated how negative constructions with modal verbs are built up and how different ways of negation influence the meaning of a certain modal verb, conveying a certain shade of certainty or possibility.

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