Learn English – Confusing structures with modal verbs

grammarmodal-verbsusageword-choice

I have skimmed through the part on modals of a classic grammar book (Murphy's "Grammar in Use") and picked up all the structures that look strange to me. Could you, please, explain how often they are used and how do they sound in the contemporary British and American English?

[Lately added] This page explains some of the usages: British and Am. English: Differences in usage


1) I should … / I shouldn't … to give somebody advice:

—Is it cold? —Yes, I should wear a coat. (It is not a misprint! "I" refers here to another person.)

I shouldn't stay up too late. You'll be tired tomorow.

2) might to ask for permission:

I have finished my work – might I go home?

3) will for present habits:

Every morning I will get up early.

I've tried everything – the car just won't start.

4) Using should after a number of adjectives (strange, odd, funny, typical, interesting etc.):

It's strange that he should be late. He's usually on time.

I was surprised that he should say such a thing.

5) If something should happen … :

If the situation should change, we'll let you know.

If Tom should phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

6) Begin the sentences from 5) with should:

Should Tom phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

7) It's (about) time … :

It's time the children were in bed.

It's about time he did something instead of just talking.

8) Needn't and needn't have (done):

Everything will be OK. You needn't worry.

It didn't rain. I needn't have taken the umbrella.

9) might as well for an alternative:

Buses are very expensive – you might as well get a taxi.

10) oughtn't [to] (ought not [to])

You oughtn't to watch scary movies before sleep.

You oughtn't come to me for news, but here's some anyway.

11) shan't (shall not)

I'm goint for a walk. I shan't be late.

He hath promised I shall never want money; and you shan't want money neither, mother.

Best Answer

3) will for present habits:

  • “Every morning I will get up early.”

  • “I’ve tried everything — the car just won’t start.”

There is no question that the verb (or verbs; there may be several) will is one of the very trickiest ones in the English language for foreigners ever to master. The deontic senses are seldom intuitive to a non-native speaker. I strongly advise you to carefully study the OED’s entry for this word’s incredibly many subtle uses.

In this case, your two examples are not of the same thing at all, and you have mischaracterized them. The first uses will to express habitual action; it does not indicate a simple future situation. This is the OED’s sense 8 for this verb:

8. Expressing natural disposition to do something, and hence habitual action: Has the habit, or ‘a way’, of ––ing; is addicted or accustomed to ––ing; habitually does; sometimes connoting ‘may be expected to’

This is related to sense 15, which is still not a simple future, albeit perhaps closer to that:

15. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or imper. clause, or otherwise implied).

Your second example, the one about the car, is completely different. This corresponds to OED sense 12:

12. With negative, expressing the contrary of senses (def#6), (def#7), (def#10), (def#11): thus commonly = refuse or decline to; emph. insist on or persist in not --ing. Also fig. of a thing. (See also (def#9), (def#13).)

Here, your car is persisting in not starting. It is the figurative sense at the end extending to things, as though they had the will to refuse. The referenced senses 9 and 13 are respectively:

9. Expressing potentiality, capacity, or sufficiency: Can, may, is able to, is capable of --ing; is (large) enough or sufficient to.

15. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or imper. clause, or otherwise implied).

As I said, will is quite complex. Please study standard reference works regarding its use.