example: I CAN speak Italian.

In the sentence “I can speak Italian,” the word “can” is the modal auxiliary and “speak” is the bare infinitive;  that is, it is the infinitive without the word “to” preceding it. This is the general pattern in which modal auxiliaries operate. (For a full discussion of these auxiliaries, please see MODAL AUXILIARY in the Grammatical Patterns Glossary.)

English has a limited set of so-called modal auxiliaries, or “modals.”  Wordsmyth recognizes the words in the table below as modals, as well as the exceptional modal auxiliary “ought.”  Although the word “ought” is considered a modal, it is followed by the word “to” before the infinitive (e.g.,” I ought to help him”) and so does not follow exactly the pattern discussed here [MODAL AUXILIARY + BARE INFINITIVE]. Therefore, “ought” does not appear in the list below.


List of modal auxiliaries that follow the pattern [MODAL AUXILIARY + BARE INFINITIVE]

can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, dare, need


All modal auxiliaries, with the exception of “ought,” are followed by infinitives without the word “to,”  as in the sentence “She might finish tomorrow.” However, in questions, the subject of the sentence comes between the modal auxiliary and the infinitive--for example, “Can they come tomorrow?” “Would you help me?”  In other words, modal auxiliaries move around the subject in questions.  Also, like other auxiliaries (e.g., “do,” “have”), they are followed directly by “not” or “n’t” to create negative expressions (e.g., “I don’t play golf”; “I can’t play golf”).

The modals “dare” and “need” can function both as ordinary verbs and as modals, although they are more commonly used as ordinary verbs in contemporary English. As modals, they function in the same pattern as the others in a sentence, for example, “Need I tell her?” “You needn’t come,”  “I daren’t ask him,” “Dare I say it?”  These modals are unusual, though, in that they rarely, if ever, occur in non-questions or non-negatives.


Additional examples of the pattern [MODAL AUXILIARY  +  BARE INFINITIVE]

I might go to that party on Saturday.

The doctor can answer that question for you.

She would help you if she could.

You should get up earlier if you want to get there on time.

I will call you when I get back.

Need I explain any further?

You must be Amy’s sister!




All grammatical patterns