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Semi Modal Verbs

Semi Modals Grammar Guide

Form

Subject + semi modal verb + INF + Object

Semi modals differ from modal verbs as they can be used as main verbs as well. This means that they can often be an area of confusion for students. Here is a brief overview of semi modal verbs and how they are used as modal auxiliary verbs or main verbs:

Important Notes

It is generally understood that there are five verbs that are classified as semi modal verbs: Dare, Need to, Ought to, Used to and Have to. 

Dare and Need can be used as main verbs with different meaning, they can take nouns and infinitives as objects and can conjugate for person and tense. 

Ought to cannot be used as a main verb but is always followed by an infinitive like modal verbs, but is used with to. 

 

Used to and Have to are special semi modals as they operate like modals but with a preposition. Have to is very unusual in that it can change form like a main verb when being used with a modal function. They can both be used as main verbs without the preposition to mean something else. 

When all these verbs are used as semi modal verbs they partner with a main verb in the infinitive form to form an expression. As with Modal verbs they generally do not conjugate for person or tense.

Need

Need as a semi-modal verb is almost always used in negative sentences to express a lack of obligation or necessity, either taking the adverb not (usually contracted as needn’t) or paired with a negative word or phrase, such as never, no one, nothing, etc. For example:

  • “No one need know about this.”

  • “He needn’t have called; I told him I would be late.”

  • “You needn’t worry about my grades.”

  • “Nothing need change simply because my father is no longer here.”

It can also be used to form interrogative sentences by inverting with the subject, as in:

  • “Need we be concerned?”

  • “Need I go to the market later?”

Like dare, though, the modal use of need has become quite uncommon in modern English, except in very formal speech or writing.

As a main verb

Need is much more common as a main verb. This means it conjugates for person (becoming needs in the third-person singular) or tense (becoming needed), and it uses auxiliary did to form negatives and questions. As a main verb, need can be followed by nouns, noun phrases, pronouns, gerunds, or infinitives. For example:

  • “He needs that report by tomorrow.”

  • “Does she need to know where the house is?”

  • “You have plenty of time, so you don’t need to rush.”

  • “He needed a place to stay, so I offered him one.”

Dare

How dare you say that to me!

He daren't try that again

It must be noted that dare is more often used in a negative or question structure. In fact, the structure "How dare someone" has become an idiomatic expression to express anger at someone doing something and the most common use of dare in a semi modal form. Other uses are becoming increasingly rare. 
 

Main Verb Use

  • Dare can be used as an intransitive main verb with the same meaning as the semi modal structure. It can be followed by either a verb in the base or infinitive form.
     

I can't believe he dared (to) try that!

No one dares (to) question my judgement

  • When used as a main verb in negative and question forms it uses do/did as an auxiliary verb. 
     

Did she dare (to) go through with it?

He didn't dare try that at home!

  • Dare can also be used to mean "to challenge some to do something that requires courage". In this case it takes a noun, pronoun or infinitive as  direct object and cannot be used in a semi modal form in this meaning. 
     

I dare you to ask Lizzy on a date!

Do you dare fight him?

Semi Modal Use

  • When Dare is used as as semi modal it is used to mean "to be reckless, brave or rude enough to do or try to do something"
     

Need (to)

Semi Modal Use

  • As a semi modal verb need is almost always used in negative contexts to express a lack of obligation or necessity, with the adverb not (often contracted as needn't) or with a negative word or phrase. 
     

Need as a semi modal can be used to express different ideas:

  • Used to demonstrate no obligation:

You needn't concern yourself with that matter

It needn't be a problem

  • Used to demonstrate no obligation in the past. This is done with did not as the auxiliary:

We didn't need to bring our passports

He didn't need to revise for the exam

  • Used to demonstrate an action was not necessary in the past. Need not + have + participle

We needn't have paid for the concert

He needn't have done that

Sometimes people find the difference between these uses a little difficult to recognise. It can be understood that did not need means something was not necessary and was not done. While need not + have + participle means something was not necessary but was done.

Ought to

Used to or would can be used to talk about habits in the past with the same meaning.

If we use them in tandem, used to is more commonly put first, to set the scene for the latter actions.

When we were younger we got very excited on Christmas Day. We used to wake up really early to open our presents and our parents would tell us to go back to bed

Used to but not would can be used to describe a state or situation that is no longer true.

We used to live in Leeds

NOT: We would live in Leeds

That pub used to be a church

NOT: That pub would be a church

Used to

Used to refers to the past.

She used to study piano but she stopped

Be used to means "to become familiar with" or "to be accustomed to" and can refer to past, present and future.

She works in a hospital so she is used to working long hours

She doesn't like living in the centre of London, she's not used to the noise

We were used to travelling by night in those days

Please note: Be used to is followed by a noun phrase, a gerund or pronoun.

Get used to or more formally become used to can also be used.

Spanish culture is very different, but you will soon get used to it

Used to refers to the past.

She used to study piano but she stopped

Be used to means "to become familiar with" or "to be accustomed to" and can refer to past, present and future.

She works in a hospital so she is used to working long hours

She doesn't like living in the centre of London, she's not used to the noise

We were used to travelling by night in those days

Please note: Be used to is followed by a noun phrase, a gerund or pronoun.

Get used to or more formally become used to can also be used.

Spanish culture is very different, but you will soon get used to it

Have to

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