Verbs: Quasimodals

Quasimodo and quasimodals: A tale of two misfits

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is now thought to have been modelled on a real person, a stone mason who worked on Notre Dame and carved his image into one of the gargoyles (below)
A bit like Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, who spent most of his life condemned to live alone among the gargoyles in the roof of the Cathedral, quasimodals are a bit of a misfit category. Although they are a bit like auxiliaries, they don’t really behave like auxiliaries. Although they are a bit like modals (the conditional verbs), they don’t really behave like modals. To add to the confusion, they go by a bunch of different names: semi-auxiliaries, semi-modals and (best of all) periphrastic verbs.

I like quasimodals, for no other reason than the word reminds of the work of one of the world’s great novelists. Quasimodals is the also the preferred term in one of my favourite grammar references, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

What is a quasimodal?

Like the true modals, quasimodals are only a small group of words but that is where things begin to get complicated. We know that Quasimodo is the central character in a novel that sprang entirely from the imagination of Victor Hugo but in the more-than-a-dozen film and television adaptations of Hugo’s story in the last century, very few have stuck to the story as Hugo wrote it. In the same way, grammar references today recognise quasimodals, but do not actually agree on the number of words that fall into this category. Depending on which grammar reference you consult, you can learn that are just four quasimodals, or five – or more.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage divides quasimodals into two groups. The first group is more or less agreed on by other references, particularly those you find online; the second group has fewer experts who include them. (There is a similar group of verbs – catenatives – that I will talk about in a few weeks.) Since I find Pam Peters’ work both clear and helpful, I’m using her categorisation of the group here:

  • dare, need, ought, used
  • be able, be about, be going, be likely, be obliged, be supposed, be willing to, have

As you can see, the first group are single words (and include a past participle), while the second group include present participles, past participles and other types of words (other parts of speech we haven’t yet covered) – but they also include one of the true auxiliaries (be, have). Depending which grammar reference you look up, you can find different names for both of these groups (marginal modals, marginal auxiliaries, semi-modals . . . basically, if you’re writing a grammar reference, you can just make up whatever seems logical to you).

You will notice that one of the quasimodals is have, which is also, of course, an auxiliary. But when we use have as an auxiliary, we use a past participle form of the main verb (I had finished; you have finished; they will have finished) and have signifies perfect aspect. When we use have as a  quasimodal, we use it with the infinitive form of the main form and the meaning changes:

  • I had to have finished by lunchtime
  • You have to finish soon.
  • They will have to have finished by now.

This quasimodal use of have – to signify that something should or must be done – illustrates how all the quasimodals work.

How are quasimodals used?

Regardless about which words actually are quasimodals or not, and even what we call this group of words, the important thing is how we use them, and this is the distinguishing feature of quasimodals. We use them with the infinitive form of other verbs to indicate similar meanings to when we use modals.

  • I dare to dream of starting my own publishing company. (I can dream of starting my own publishing company.)
  • I need to tell one of my clients that they are late in paying me. (I must tell one of my clients that they are late in paying me.)
  • He ought to prepare more posts in advance. (He should prepare more posts in advance.)
  • We used to go out more often when the weather was fin.e (We would go out more often when the weather was fine.)
  • They are able to start at any time. (They can start at any time.)
  • You are about to learn more about verbs than you possibly wanted to know. (You will learn more about verbs than you possibly wanted to know.)
  • We are going to make popcorn tonight. (We will make popcorn tonight.)
  • It is likely to be fine tomorrow. (It should be fine tomorrow.)
  • I am obliged to pass on some unpleasant news. (I must pass on some unpleasant news.)
  • She is supposed to be proofreading. (She should be proofreading.)
  • I am willing to have a tooth filled without an anaesthetic. (I can have a tooth filled without an anaesthetic.)
  • They have to leave soon. (They must leave soon.)

Does it matter whether you use a quasimodal or a modal? No, not really – using a modal form verb creates a shorter sentence and may, in speech, seem blunter or even rude; a quasimodal creates a slightly longer, more complex sentence and may seem more polite, harder to understand or verbose, depending on the sentence and context.

The key thing to remember is that there is a small group of verbs that behave almost like conditional verbs but are just a bit different.

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Photos: Notre Dame gargoyle by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash; the real Quasimodo by Videogamegenius

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