Limba Engleza Contemporana

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3. Modality and modal verbs

Syntactic properties of modal verbs

Modals add to the lexical verb a special semantic component such as ability, obligation, permission, possibility. From a syntactic point of view, modal verbs have certain properties that make them similar to auxiliary verbs. These properties are known in the literature as NICE properties. NICE is an acronym (negation, interrogation, coordination, emphasis).

1. The negator NOT is attached to the modal verb to form a negative sentence.

2. Modal verbs are inverted with the subject in yes or no, wh-, and tag-questions just like auxiliary verbs.

3. The modal verb can be used in coordinate clauses beginning with AND SO followed by inversion to avoid repetition.

4. Modal verbs can be used for emphatic purposes in affirmative sentences.

Both auxiliaries and modals appear in the same type of constructions and have the so called NICE properties.

Modal verbs cannot appear in certain constructions. They are incompatible with non-finite forms (present/past participle, infinitive). Modal verbs are incompatible with agreement; they are always followed by a short infinitive. They have no passive form and no imperative. Modal verbs cannot co-occur with the exception of certain dialects in southern USA, where two modals in the same sentence are acceptable. Some modals have two tense forms (present and past: can-could, may-might).

Modal verbs are a distinct class of verbs that share syntactic properties with auxiliary verbs (NICE properties) and which have a certain semantic value like the lexical verbs.

Semantic properties

We distinguish 2 main kinds of meanings for modal auxiliaries:

a. INTRINSIC: permission, obligation, volition

b. EXTRINSIC: possibility, necessity, prediction

CAN/COULD: possibility, ability, permission

MAY/MIGHT: possibility, permission

MUST: necessity, obligation

NEED, HAVE TO: necessity, obligation

OUGHT TO, SHOULD: tentative inference, obligation

WILL/WOULD: prediction, volition

SHALL: prediction, volition

4. Types of predication

Copulative predication

A copulative predicate consists of a linking verb and a predicative which may be adjectival or nominal. The adjectival predicative may be realized by an AP. The nominal predicative may be expressed by a NP, PP or a clause.

The role of the link verb BE as part of the copulative predicate:

a. it connects the subject NP to the NP/AP functioning as predicative

b. it enters into a relationship of agreement in person and number with the subject of the sentence.

c. it provides information concerning tense and aspect.

There are 2 classes of link verbs:

a. semantically empty link verbs: BE


Some of these semantically poor verbs can also be used as transitive or intransitive verbs.

The predicative is referentially dependent on the subject of the sentence to which it gives an attribute or an identity. The main property of the identifying predicative is that it is reversible that is it can change positions with the subject.

A. The adjectival predicative

Adjectives that are used predicatively may be non-derived or derived. Some predicative adjectives are derived from transitive verbs by means of suffixation. The DO of the transitive verb becomes a PO in the copulative predication.

There is a special group of predicative adjectives which indicate state/condition and which are prefixed by ‘a-’: alike, averse, afraid, akin. These predicative adjectives may take clausal complement.

The classification of the predicative adjectives according to the type of subject they select

Predicative adjectives may be classified according to the semantic features of the subject they select:

a. predicative adjectives that select a [+animate] subject [+-human] include: hungry, attentive, eager, sleepy, tired, playful, alive, wicked

b. predicative adjectives that only combine with a [+human] subject are: sorry, imaginative, ingenious, kindhearted, polite, sincere

Antonymic pairs: clever/dull, careful/careless, sincere/hypocritical, silent/talkative

c. predicative adjectives that take [+concrete] subject include adjectives denoting colour, shape, and antonymic pairs of adjectives such as: big/small, long/short, thick/thin, new/old.

d. predicative adjectives that select a [+abstract] subject are: obvious,easy/hard/difficult, simple, advisable, necessary, natural, likely.

B. The nominal predicative is expressed by a NP, PP or a clause. The nominal predicative expressed by a NP is always indefinite. The nominal predicative expressed by a PP may be preceded by the preposition OF or by other prepositions. All prepositions in the English language can be part of a nominal predicative.

Intransitive predication

Verbs with one argument have been traditionally known as intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs obligatorily take a NP in subject position which receives the thematic role of Agent or Patient. Intransitive verbs are of 2 types: simple and complex.

Semantically simple intransitive verbs express events of all types. From a syntactic point of view intransitive verbs may optionally take an adverbial modifier.


1. Phrasal intransitive verbs (V+particle) are followed by particles with various meanings. Certain particles of phrasal verbs show direction (go up, fly past, fall down). Most of these verbs indicate motion. Certain particles refer to the temporal dimension of the event. They may suggest the beginning of the activity in which case the particles are called ingressive (out, about, off, in). ON and AWAY indicate the continuation of the activity. They convey a durative meaning. The particle ON may combine freely with any verb. In contrast the particle AWAY cannot be used with all verbs. The particles OUT, UP and AWAY express the end of the action (+off, through) that is why they are also called egressive particles.

2. Reflexive intransitive verbs always take a reflexive pronoun which is co-referential with the subject of the sentence. There is always a relationship of agreement in person and number between the subject of the sentence and the reflexive pronoun. Almost all reflexive verbs in English can be used as transitive or intransitive verbs (without the reflexive pronoun).

Prepositional reflexive verbs: Acquaint oneself with smth; abandon oneself to smth; accustom oneself to smth, adapt onself to smth, congratulate onself on/upon smth; worry onself about/over smth; revenge onself on smb.

Complex intransitive verbs are two-place predicates that is they obligatorily take a subject and a prepositional object or an adverbial modifer to form a correct sentence. Classes:

1. Prepositional intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs belonging to this group always take a prepositional object expressed by a prepositional phrase. By passivization the object of the preposition is moved in initial sentence position, while the preposition gets separated from its object and remains attached to the verb.

When we want to emphasize the prepositional object we move it to pre-subject position. This rearrangement of the constituents of the sentence is called topicalization.

2. Prepositional phrasal verbs

By passivization the object of the preposition becomes subject of the passive sentence while the particle and the preposition remain in situ. The prepositional object is emphasized by means of topicalization. The particle remains in situ.

3. Intransitives with IOs

All these verbs take an IO marked by the preposition TO. From a semantic point of view these verbs are of several types:

-eventive: happen

-verbs of seeming: see, appear

-verbs of mental processes: occur

-verbs of perception: taste, sound

-relational verbs showing possession: to belong and inferiority relations: surrender, submit

4. Intransitives with two PO

A number of complex intransitive verbs may be followed by 2 PP. the 1st PP may function as an IO or as PO with the semantic feature [+human]. The 2nd PP functions as a PO and it indicates the topic of discussion.

5. Complex intransitives with adverbial modifiers: of place, manner; quantifiying adverbials of place, time, that indicate price.

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