Coulda, woulda, shoulda
While the ‘being’ and ‘having’ words (the verbs to be and to have) function as the main auxiliaries with verbs, forming different variations of tense and aspect, there is another subgroup of verbs that work with main verbs to show different meanings. These words are also classified as auxiiliary verbs, but differentiated from the main (or primary) auxiliaries by a different name: they are known as the modal auxiliaries or modal verbs, or sometimes as conditionals. The name conditional comes to use from the grammar of other European languages (such as French and Italian), where a conditional form of the verb is shown by giving a different ending to a main verb, and, while this is not the same in English, I do like the name conditional verbs for modal verbs as it indicates what they do: they show conditions imposed on the action that a verb indicates. (Some people use the word modality to describe this.)
If we think of a truck, we know that it can be driven in different conditions: in the city, in the country, in wet conditions or at night.
Like trucks, verbs can have different conditions imposed on them
Modal verbs do the same for verbs: these auxiliaries show the verb taking place under different conditions.
What are modal verbs?
The modal verbs are the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ words: can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must. When we use them with verbs, we indicating a degree of certainty or doubt about whether the verb is happening (or has happened, or will happen, or whatever variation of tense and aspect is being used). Generally, the conditions under which the verb happens are explained in an additional part of the sentence (known as a conditional clause).
- I should publish a new blog post every Monday but sometimes I don’t.
- I could publish a new blog post every Monday if I didn’t sometimes have other work commitments over the weekend.
- I may publish a new blog entry every Monday if I have time to write one over the weekend.
The main thing to notice about conditional verbs is that, unlike the primary auxiliaries, they are not used with a participle (the –ing and –ed forms of the main verb). Instead, they are used with a non-finite (non-conjugated) form of the main verb.
It is interesting that the way we form the future tense is being using one of the modals (will) with a non-finite form. If you are philosophically inclined, that may lead you to wonder whether the future actually exists, or whether is merely a condition of the present . . . unfortunately, grammar has no answers to offer.
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