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Basics. Modal verbs for expressing preferences, requests, and imperatives in speech.

Modals When Speaking About Preferences and Requests and Imperatives

Modals Usage

Would you like...?
  • As a replacement for "Do you want?": Would you like some coffee?
  • To invite someone: Would you like to join us for dinner?
I'd like...
  • To say "I want" politely: I'd like a cup of tea, please.
I'd rather... / I would rather...
  • To express preference: I'd rather stay home tonight.

Imperatives Usage

Positive Imperatives
  • Direct order: Do this!
  • Polite request: Please pass the salt.
  • Wishing well: Have a good trip.
  • Encouragement: Enjoy your meal.
  • Offering: Have a cookie.
Negative Imperatives
  • Direct order: Don't do that!
  • Alert: Don't touch the hot stove.
  • Appeal: Don't forget your umbrella.
  • Emphasis: Don't be late.
  • Asking people to do things: Let's go to the movies.
  • Suggesting not to do something: Let's not argue about this.
Edited: 4/12/2023


Verbs constitute one of the main word classes in the English language. Like other types of words in the language, English verbs are not heavily inflected. Most combinations of tense, aspect, mood and voice are expressed periphrastically, using constructions with auxiliary verbs.

Generally, the only inflected forms of an English verb are a third person singular present tense form in -s, a past tense, a past participle (which may be the same as the past tense), and a form ending in -ing that serves as a present participle and gerund. Most verbs inflect in a simple regular fashion, although there are about 200 irregular verbs; the irregularity in nearly all cases concerns the past tense and past participle forms. The copula verb be has a larger number of different inflected forms, and is highly irregular.

A typical English verb may have five different inflected forms:

  • The base form or plain form (go, write, climb), which has several uses—as an infinitive, imperative, present subjunctive, and present indicative except in the third-person singular
  • The -s form (goes, writes, climbs), used as the present indicative in the third-person singular
  • the past tense or preterite (went, wrote, climbed)
  • The past participle (gone, written, climbed) – this is identical to the past tense in the case of regular verbs and some irregular ones (here the first two verbs are irregular and the third regular)
  • The -ing form (going, writing, climbing), used as a present participle, gerund, and (de)verbal nounThe verb be has a larger number of different forms (am, is, are, was, were, etc.), while the modal verbs have a more limited number of forms.

Some forms of be and of certain other auxiliary verbs also have contracted forms ( 's, 're, 've, etc.).

In English, verbs frequently appear in combinations containing one or more auxiliary verbs and a nonfinite form (infinitive or participle) of a main (lexical) verb.


The first verb in such a combination is the finite verb, the remainder are nonfinite (although constructions in which even the leading verb is nonfinite are also possible – see below). Such combinations are sometimes called compound verbs; more technically they may be called verb catenae, since they are not generally strict grammatical constituents of the clause.

  • The dog was barking very loudly.
  • My hat has been cleaned.
  • Jane does not really like us.

As the last example shows, the words making up these combinations do not always remain consecutive.

Tenses, Aspects and Moods

The means English uses for expressing the three categories of tense (time reference), aspect and mood are somewhat conflated. English has only limited means for expressing these categories through verb conjugation, and tends mostly to express them periphrastically, using the verb combinations mentioned in the previous section. The tenses, aspects and moods that may be identified in English are described below (although the terminology used differs significantly between authors). Note that in common usage, particular tense–aspect–mood combinations such as "present progressive" and "conditional perfect" are often referred to simply as "tenses".

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: wikipedia (1, 2, 3, 4)

Auxiliary Verb

In English grammar, certain verb forms are classified as auxiliary verbs. Exact definitions of this term vary; an auxiliary verb is generally conceived as one with little semantic meaning of its own, which modifies the meaning of another verb with which it co-occurs. In English, verbs are often classed as auxiliaries on the basis of certain grammatical properties, particularly as regards their syntax – primarily whether they participate in subject–auxiliary inversion, and can be negated by the simple addition of not after them.

Certain auxiliaries have contracted forms, such as -'d and -'ll for had/would and will/shall. There are also many contractions formed from the negations of auxiliary verbs, ending in n't (a reduced form of not). These letter contractions can participate in inversion as a unit (as in Why haven't you done it?, where the uncontracted form would be Why have you not done it?), and thus in a certain sense can be regarded as auxiliary verbs in their own right.

An auxiliary verb is most generally understood as a verb that "helps" another verb by adding grammatical information to it. On this basis, the auxiliary verbs of English may be taken to include:

  • forms of the verb do (do, does, did), when used with other verbs to enable the formation of questions, negation, emphasis, etc.;
  • forms of the verb have, when used to express perfect aspect;
  • forms of the verb be, when used to express progressive aspect or passive voice;
  • the modal verbs, used in a variety of meanings, principally relating to modality.

The following are examples of sentences containing the above types of auxiliary verbs:

  • Do you want tea? – do is an auxiliary accompanying the verb want, used here to form a question.
  • He had given his all. – had is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle given, expressing perfect aspect.
  • We are singing. – are is an auxiliary accompanying the present participle singing, expressing progressive aspect.
  • It was destroyed. – was is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle destroyed, expressive passive voice.
  • He can do it now. – can is a modal auxiliary accompanying the verb do.

However the above understanding of auxiliary verbs is not always strictly adhered to in the literature, particularly in the case of forms of the verb be, which may be called auxiliaries even when they do not accompany another verb. Other approaches to defining auxiliary verbs are described in the following sections.

There is a group of English verbs which have certain special grammatical (syntactic) properties that distinguish them from other verbs. This group consists mainly of verbs that are auxiliaries in the above sense – verbs that add grammatical meaning to other verbs – and thus some authors use the term auxiliary verb, in relation to English, to denote precisely the verbs in this group. However, not all enumerations of English auxiliary verbs correspond exactly to the group of verbs having these grammatical properties. This group of verbs may also be referred to by other names, such as special verbs.

The principal distinguishing properties of verbs in this special group are as follows:

  • They can participate in what is called subject–auxiliary inversion, i.e. they can swap places with the subject of the clause, to form questions and for certain other purposes. For example, inversion of subject and verb is possible in the sentence They can sing (becoming Can they sing?); but it is not possible in They like to sing – it is not correct to say Like they to sing? (instead do-support is required: Do they like to sing?).
  • They undergo negation by the addition of not after them. For example, one can say They cannot sing, but not They like not to sing (again do-support is required: They don't like...).
  • Other distinct features of verbs in this group include their ability to introduce verb phrase ellipsis (I can sing can be shortened to I can in appropriate contexts, whereas I like to sing cannot be shortened to I like), and the positioning of certain adverbs directly after them (compare I can often sing with I often like to sing).

The group of verbs with the above properties consists of:

  • the finite indicative forms of the verb be: am, is, are, was, were;
  • the finite indicative forms of the verb have: have, has, had, principally when used to make perfect verb forms;
  • the finite indicative forms of the verb do: do, does, did, when used to provide do-support;
  • the principal modal verbs can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would;
  • certain other verbs, sometimes but not always classed as modals: ought; dare and need in certain uses; had in had better; and sometimes used in used to (see the relevant sections of modal verbs for details).

If membership of this syntactic class is considered to be the defining property for auxiliary verbs, it is therefore the above-listed verbs that will be considered as auxiliaries.

Additionally, non-indicative and non-finite forms of the same verbs (when performing the same functions) are usually described as auxiliaries too, even though all or most of the distinctive syntactical properties do not apply to them specifically.

This concerns be (as infinitive, imperative and subjunctive), being and been; and when used in the expression of perfect aspect, have, having and had.

The chief difference between this syntactic definition of auxiliary verb and the functional definition given in the section above is that the syntactic definition includes the verb be even when used simply as a copular verb, in sentences like I am hungry and It was a cat, where it does not accompany any other verb.

Sometimes, non-auxiliary uses of have follow auxiliary syntax, as in Have you any ideas? and I haven't a clue.

Other lexical verbs do not do this in modern English, although they did so formerly, and such uses as I know not... can be found in archaic English.

Lists or sets of auxiliary verbs in English, as given by various authors, generally consist of most or all of the verbs mentioned in the above sections, though with minor discrepancies.

The main differences between the various proposed sets of auxiliary verbs are noted below.

  • For the reasons mentioned above, forms of the verb be may or may not be regarded as auxiliaries when used as a copula not accompanying any other verb.
  • The verb ought is sometimes excluded from the class of auxiliaries (specifically the modal auxiliaries) on the grounds that, unlike the principal modals, it requires the to-infinitive rather than the bare infinitive.
  • The verbs dare and need are not always considered auxiliaries (or modals); their auxiliary-like syntactic behavior (and their modal-like invariance) applies only to some instances of these verbs, e.g., dare and need.
  • The verbs had and used in the expressions had better and used to are not always included among the auxiliaries or modals; in the case of used to questions and negations are in any case more frequently formed using do-support than with auxiliary syntax.
  • Other verbs with modal-like or auxiliary-like function may sometimes be classed as auxiliaries even though they do not have auxiliary-like syntactic behavior; this may apply to have in the expression have to, meaning must.

As mentioned below, the contractions of negated forms of auxiliary verbs (isn't, shouldn't, etc.) behave in a certain sense as if they were auxiliaries in their own right, in that they can participate as a whole in subject–auxiliary inversion.

Meaning Contribution

Forms of the verbs have and be, used as auxiliaries with a main verb's past participle and present participle respectively, express perfect aspect and progressive aspect. When forms of be are used with the past participle, they express passive voice. It is possible to combine any two or all three of these uses: The room has been being cleaned for the past three hours. Here the auxiliaries has, been and being (each followed by the appropriate participle type) combine to express perfect and progressive aspect and passive voice.

The auxiliary do (does, did) does not necessarily make any meaning contribution, although it can be used to add emphasis to a clause. This is called the emphatic mood in English. An example of this use is found in "I do go to work on time every day." Also, Do does help in the formation of questions, negations, etc.

Other auxiliaries – the modal verbs – contribute meaning chiefly in the form of modality, although some of them (particularly will and sometimes shall) express future time reference. Their uses are detailed at modal verbs article, and tables summarizing their principal meaning contributions can be found in the articles on modal verb and auxiliary verb.

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: wikipedia (1)

Imperative Mood

The imperative mood is a grammatical mood that forms a command or request.

An example of a verb used in the imperative mood is the English sentence Please be quiet. Such imperatives imply a second-person subject (you), but some other languages also have first- and third-person imperatives, with the meaning of let's (do something) or let him/her/them (do something) (the forms may alternatively be called cohortative and jussive.

Imperative mood can be denoted by the glossing abbreviation. It is one of the irrealis moods.


Imperative mood is often expressed using special conjugated verb forms. Like other finite verb forms, imperatives often inflect for person and number. Second-person imperatives (used for ordering or requesting performance directly from the person being addressed) are most common, but some languages also have imperative forms for the first and third persons (alternatively called cohortative and jussive respectively).

In English, the imperative is formed using the bare infinitive form of the verb (see verbs for more details). This is usually also the same as the second-person present indicative form, except in the case of the verb to be, where the imperative is be while the indicative is are. (The present subjunctive always has the same form as the imperative, although it is negated differently – the imperative is negated using do not, as in Don't touch me!) The imperative form is understood as being in the second person (the subject pronoun you is usually omitted, although it can be included for emphasis), with no explicit indication of singular or plural.

First and third person imperatives are expressed periphrastically, using a construction with the imperative of the verb let:

  • Let us (Let's) have a drink! (equivalent to a first person plural imperative)
  • Let him/her/them be happy! (equivalent to a third person imperative; constructions with may are also used)


Imperatives are used principally for ordering, requesting or advising the listener to do (or not to do) something: Put down the gun!; Pass me the sauce; Don't go too near the tiger. They are also often used for giving instructions as to how to perform a task (Install the file, then restart your computer). They can sometimes be seen on signs giving orders or warnings (Stop; Give way; Do not enter).

The use of the imperative mood may be seen as impolite, inappropriate or even offensive in certain circumstances. In polite speech, orders or requests are often phrased instead as questions or statements, rather than as imperatives:

  • Could you come here for a moment? (more polite than Come here!)
  • It would be great if you made us a drink. (for Make us a drink!)
  • I have to ask you to stop. (for Stop!)

Politeness strategies (for instance, indirect speech acts) can seem more appropriate in order not to threaten a conversational partner in their needs of self-determination and territory: the partner's negative face should not appear threatened. As well as the replacement of imperatives with other sentence types as discussed above, there also often exist methods of phrasing an imperative in a more polite manner, such as the addition of a word like please or a phrase like if you could. Imperatives are also used for speech acts whose function is essentially not to make an order or request, but to give an invitation, give permission, express a wish, make an apology, etc.:

  • Come to the party tomorrow! (invitation)
  • Eat the apple if you want. (permission)
  • Have a nice trip! (wish)
  • Pardon me. (apology)
  • Visit Estonia and Armenia! (advertisement)

When written, imperative sentences are often, but not always, terminated with an exclamation mark. First person plural imperatives (cohortatives) are used mainly for suggesting an action to be performed together by the speaker and the addressee (and possibly other people): Let's go to Barbados this year; Let us pray. Third person imperatives (jussives) are used to suggest or order that a third party or parties be permitted or made to do something: Let them eat cake; Let him be executed. There is an additional imperative form that is used for general prohibitions, consisting of the word no followed by the gerund form. The best known examples are No Smoking and No Parking. This form does not have a positive form; that is, Parking by itself has no meaning unless used as a noun when it tells that parking is permitted.

English usually omits the subject pronoun in imperative sentences:

  • You work hard. (indicative)
  • Work hard! (imperative; subject pronoun you omitted)

However, it is possible to include the you in imperative sentences for emphasis.

English imperatives are negated using don't (as in Don't work!) This is a case of do-support as found in indicative clauses; however in the imperative it applies even in the case of the verb be (which does not use do-support in the indicative):

  • You are not late. (indicative)
  • Don't be late! (imp