Marginal Modals in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In English grammar, a marginal modal is a verb (such as dare, need, used to, ought to) that displays some but not all of the properties of an auxiliary.

The marginal modals all have meanings that are related to necessity and advice. A marginal modal can be used as either an auxiliary or a main verb.


  • "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us."
    (Franz Kafka, letter to Oscar Pollack, January 27, 1904)
  • "I used to live in a room full of mirrors.
    All I could see was me."
    (Jimi Hendrix, "Room Full Of Mirrors")
  • "For Children: You will need to know the difference between Friday and a fried egg. It's quite a simple difference, but an important one. Friday comes at the end of the week, whereas a fried egg comes out of a chicken."
    (Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Crown, 2002)

Characteristics of Marginal Modals

  • "Neither the marginal modal nor any of the modal idioms form past or present participles (thus *I have oughted to work hard, *I am oughting to work hard). And although very few semi-auxiliaries participate in compound tenses, a few function adequately as perfects (I have been able/going to/obliged/willing to work hard, I have been about to work hard on several occasions, I have had to work hard) and only two are unquestionably acceptable as progressives (I am being obliged to work hard, I am having to work hard). As a general rule, semi-auxiliaries are reluctant to enter compound tenses."
    (Richard V. Teschner and Eston E. Evans, Analyzing the Grammar of English, 3rd ed. Georgetown University Press, 2007)

    Dare and Need As Marginal Modals

    • ​​"As modal verbs, dare and need take a bare infinitive complement in negated and/or inverted structures. They do not have third person singular forms.
      (128) Or daren't you ask?
      (129) You needn't read every chapter.
      (130) And dare I suggest that that is the match-winner?
      (131) Nor need I look further than my own city of Sheffield.
      As a marginal modal verb need has no past tense: we cannot say, for example *He needed read every chapter. It expresses 'necessity' which is clearly a central modal meaning. Dare is not obviously modal from the point of view of meaning, though it is 'forward-looking,' and is sometimes regarded as instantiating dynamic modality, due to the fact that the act of daring relates to the subject of the clause."
      (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)
    • "The verb dare . . . is an odd little word. . . . Sometimes it's called a 'marginal modal,' but I prefer the description 'quasi modal.' Either label, dare hovers between being an ordinary garden-variety verb meaning 'to challenge' and one of these more abstract and grammatically complex verbs conveying a judgment about likelihood--and it's this double life that gives rise to some fairly eccentric behaviour. Consider how it forms a negative. Do you say I daren't (pronounced 'darent' or 'dairnt'), I dare not, or I don't care? T.S. Eliot might have chosen to phrase the question in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' as 'Do I dare to eat a peach?' but some of you might prefer 'Dare I eat a peach?' The word order is different, and it's also variable whether or not you follow dare with to.
      "Colloquial English is full of these quasi modals. The verb need is one, and so are contracted expressions such as gonna, wanna and halfta. But one of my current favourites is better as in I better do it."
      (Kate Burridge, Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

    Used to As a Marginal Modal

    • "Used to occurs only in the past tense form, and always includes to. We do not say * I use to go or * I used go. In the negative form, some people prefer it as a main verb (but are often uncertain about the spelling): I didn't (use(d) to go. Others prefer it as an auxiliary verb: I usen't/used not to go (especially in Britain)."
      (David Crystal, Rediscover Grammar, 3rd ed. Longman, 2004)
    • "[T]here are a number of marginal auxiliaries (dare, need, ought to, used to) that share some of the characteristics of the auxiliaries and a larger group of semi-auxiliaries (auxiliary-like verbs) that convey similar notions of time, aspect, and modality (e.g.: be going to, have to, had better)."
      (Sidney Greenbaum, Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)

    Also Known As: marginal auxiliary, marginal modal auxiliary, semi-modal, quasi-modal, semi-auxiliary

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Marginal Modals in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, May. 7, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 7). Marginal Modals in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Marginal Modals in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2018).