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While doing some research on a comment I had read on ELL I read the following excerpt from a website called e.grammar

You needn't listen to him. (You don't have to listen to him.) x You don't need to listen to him. (There is no need to listen.) These two sentences are different in the form and meaning, too.

After reflecting, I started interpreting the two sentences like this:

  1. "You needn't listen to him" = It is unnecessary to listen to that man. If you want to listen that is your choice, but it's not important.

  2. "You don't need to listen to him" = It is not necessary to listen to that man. If you do you will only be wasting your time.

Is the second sentence more forceful, perhaps precluding the possibility of choice? Or is my mind playing tricks on me and in reality the two phrases have identical meanings?

I must admit to feeling bemused. Before reading the passage I would have said there was no difference in meaning between needn't and don't need. On the BBC Learning English I read this:

Needn't and don't need to

There is also a difference in use when these verbs are used to describe present situations. We can use both needn't and don't need to to give permission to someone not to do something in the immediate future. We can also use need as a noun here:

You don't need to water the garden this evening. It's going to rain tonight.
You needn't water the garden this evening. It's going to rain tonight.
There's no need to water the garden this evening. It's going to rain tonight.

This would confirm my initial belief; that there is no real difference in meaning but now... I'm not so sure. And if there is no difference, except for structure, why do the two forms exist side by side? Why or when did "need" become a modal verb?

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When did need become a modal verb? That's a misleading question. The real question is: when did it stop being a modal verb? See this Ngram. (Actually, it was only a modal verb in the negative, and not generally used in the positive; need not and must not being two different opposites of the modal verb must. There's a question about that somewhere on this site.) –  Peter Shor Jun 9 '13 at 2:34
    
My question was dictated by the website I consulted. It claims that the two uses are different in form and in meaning, too. As I am a trusting soul, I began to doubt my instincts and almost convinced myself it was true! However, my second question, poorly researched I admit, was also interesting for me. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '13 at 14:30
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marked as duplicate by Peter Shor , MετάEd, Hellion, Kristina Lopez, choster Jun 12 '13 at 17:17

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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, my take on it is that the differences are too small to be of interest to anyone except linguists, poets, and authors.

There is, however, one difference that you accidentally highlighted. Notice the stress you placed on need in your second example sentence:

"You don't need to listen to him."

You could have just as easily placed the stress on don't, or not stressed any of the words. You have fewer choices of sentence stress in the you needn't form, and this probably affects the nuance in ways I'm not really qualified to discuss.

Why or when did "need" become a modal verb?

There is a large grey area between the modal auxiliaries and the ordinary verbs. The trend seems to be that, in forms like:

subject verb1 verb2

verb1 tends to get reanalysed as a modal auxiliary. For instance, will used to be a plain verb, meaning want to (and want used to mean lack).

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There is no difference in meaning. But you needn't speak like that if you live in the States or they may mistake you for a Brit.

My apologies. Let me clarify what I was meaning in the sentence above. It is really a matter of dialect. It is not nearly as common in the States to hear "you needn't" as it would be in England (and therefore one may mistake you for a 'Brit'). I upped your comment for making me aware of my cause of confusion & hoped it would alert you that I attempted to answer your question (sorry I'm new and don't know how to chat).

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You needn't speak like what/how? And why may you be mistaken for a Brit? –  TrevorD Jun 8 '13 at 22:41
    
Oh here it is. I hope that makes more sense. I have a penchant for being a smart a**. No offense. I looked at your page & noticed you were from across the pond. I play words w/friends with someone in England and constantly inform him he has an advantage because I am an American and therefore brutalize the English language ;-) –  Charlie Brown Jun 9 '13 at 1:15
    
Thanks for the clarification. –  TrevorD Jun 9 '13 at 11:46
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