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We are being taught English by a native speaker from Alaska. He states that many of modal verbs we were taught are outdated and have been replaced.

E.g.:

  • We must ➙ We have to
  • May I come in? ➙ Do you mind if I come in?
  • We don't have to leave yet. ➙ We don't gotta go yet.

Totally outdated: "ought to" and "shall".

Is it true, and if so, to what extent? Which modal verbs do you regularly use in your spoken English and which in written language?

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Interesting question, although I doubt very much that the third example is in common use in the UK. –  Frank Apr 15 at 8:21
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Also, your teacher seems to be contradicting himself. He is saying that must is replaced by have to, but have to is replaced by got to/gotta?! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 8:31
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@Denis, that's not correct. Have to is just as strong as must. If you're looking for something weaker, you should be looking at should or ought to. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 8:33
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@JanusBahsJacquet - You know much more about languages than I do, but you seem to have an exaggerated view of the disintegration of American English. Bad English is bad English in the United States as well as elsewhere. If one of my kids (all adults) said We don't gotta go yet, I guarantee you, it would stop me dead in my tracks, and I would wonder if my child was suffering a TIA. Once I was assured of their neurological health, I would fix upon them a stare such as they have not seen in a decade. Luckily, they will never say that. –  medica Apr 15 at 9:06
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@Denis, the more traditional way to make a passive in English is with the auxiliary verb to be: “He was accepted”, rather than “He got accepted”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 9:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The question is to some extent a matter of opinion. However, I would say that your examples are not examples which are widely considered outdated, especially in written English.

We must is used in formal speech and in writing. In informal speech, it has been largely replaced by we need to, we have to and we've got to.

Gotta is slang for have got to, and the latter is certainly not outdated. We don't gotta go yet is terrible English, and I suggest you do not get into the habit of saying something that will make you stand out as a poor speaker of English.

The list of modal verbs in use today is too broad to be addressed here, but you can learn them by reading. Reading personal blogs will give you an idea of how people speak. Reading articles will give you an idea of how people write today.

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@Denis Kulagin - you may want to be up to date, but don't mistake that with bad English. Bad English is bad everywhere. –  medica Apr 15 at 8:57
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I would say that the GP's Alaskan teacher is doing him a great disservice. –  outis nihil Apr 15 at 14:52
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To be pedantic in the extreme "We don't gotta go." is not terrible at all, and is the correct way to say things in particular varieties of English. It is very informal and would be incorrect in Standard or published English. If you are learning English, you don't want to use that at all. –  Mitch Apr 15 at 18:32
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"that will make you stand out as a poor speaker of English" -- I would say, rather, that it makes you a good speaker of poor English, not a poor speaker of English. This kind of sentence structure and word choice is frequent among a certain category of native speakers, and you would likely fit right in without an eyeblink when speaking that way. –  Brian S Apr 15 at 19:24
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"We don't gotta go" is extremely non-standard. Don't even think of learning it! It might pass as the norm in some urban areas, but it will mark you as an illiterate boor. If your "teacher" insists on it, complain to his superiors and get him replaced with someone who teaches passable English. You don't want to end up speaking like that moron. –  Phil Perry Apr 15 at 21:50

We must -> We have to

These are both in common usage still - as a native speaker I would use "must" for emphasis, or to talk about things we should consider doing rather than absolutely are required to do. For example

"We must get around to getting you that new dress..."

In this context "have to" wouldn't work.

Incidentally note the difference between two pronunciations of

"a list of things we have to do in our holidays"

pronounced [hafta] it is obligation, pronounced [havtu] it is a matter of possibility (What things do we have to do at Easter camp? We can go fishing, sailing, rock climbing, ...)

Another related one

"she was supposed to have killed him"

where the voicing on supposed makes the "thought" meaning and the devoicing the modal meaning. The dropping of segments including voicing and differences in place of articulation (gotta, haft, sposta) is part of the entropic pressure on language, and it is those things that are becoming common frequent idioms that are most affected. It is the same process that lead to "the day" -> "to day" -> "to-day" -> "today" and "the morrow"... (note cognate Morgen in German still means both morning and tomorrow: in the morning = tomorrow). Also I see the same affect in "one of" -> "one off" and "would have" -> "would've" -> "would of" -> "wouldf".

May I come in? -> Do you mind if I come in?

Actually I am not that polite or pedantic, and would say "Can I come in?" [knai kmin]. All are quite reasonable, your two are both polite, but my version is the most natural.

We don't have to leave yet. -> We don't gotta go yet.

I wouldn't say either, but would certainly use "have to" or "need to" rather than "don't gotta". I would also say "I've got to go now" or "I have to go now" with almost equal likelihood, the former more informal but I could still say either in an important meeting or phone call (and have), as well as "I really must go now".

In terms of what is going on here, in every community, in every new generation, language is changing and new idioms are emerging (like the many uses of "like"). But the international media, and in particular movies and TV shows, means this spreads and we no longer have the insular effects to the same degree.

In practice, it is important to learn the new modals "hafta", "gotta", "sposta", "kinda", "like" if you want to fit in and sound natural/native. The last two though I wouldn't use in a formal context.

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you have to trade off the benefit of blending in and the risk of getting these idioms completely wrong. I had to make a list of banned words for my students, like "wanna" or "gotta" because foreigners would think them acceptable otherwise. I've had more than a dozen "wanna to" in my career, in formal exams. Yikes! –  PatrickT Apr 15 at 17:32
    
lets put it this way, you should be using "have to", "got to", "supposed to" as very frequent modals. If you are speaking this naturally in a mid stress context (main stress on main verb) then there will be a tendency for your "to" to become vestigial. In the case of "want to" the /n/ is very close to the usual point of articulation of the /t/ which is thus easily assimilated. There is nothing wrong with it sounding like "wanna" but you should always write the correct "to" form, and of course "wanna to" is just wrong (although "wanted to" will reduce to this). Also it's "I've got to go". –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 1:41
    
Yes, the OP is very clear about a desire to clarify spoken/written context. –  PatrickT Apr 16 at 15:09
    
also worth clarifying formal/informal, e.g. letter/paper vs chat/sms, with email varying between these extremes according to its context. –  David M W Powers May 12 at 9:34

If someone says using 'gotta' as proper English, as a rule of thumb, I would recommend doing the exact opposite of everything they say. Gotta is phenomenally terrible English.

Seriously, every recommendation that you've listed is wrong.

  • We must ➙ We have to

These are similar but they say different things. Many people will treat must as a stronger form of have to. They aren't simply interchangeable.

  • May I come in? ➙ Do you mind if I come in?

This is just a completely different way of wording the same sentiment. If you were trying to pad the word count of your essay, or if you were trying to be extremely formal, then use the second. Otherwise, the first one is perfectly fine. Actually, it is better English than most people would use. Most people would say "Can I come in?". Using "May I" is technically more correct, but it isn't often used anymore.

I was always taught that 'Can I' is a question of capability. "Can I jump ten feet in the air?". Whereas 'May I' is a question of permission. Whenever someone would ask "Can I go to the bathroom?" one of my high school English teachers would always respond "Well of course you can go but, no, you may not go."

  • We don't have to leave yet. ➙ We don't gotta go yet.

No. Just No. I don't know if words exist to describe exactly how bad that is.

In addition assuming the opposite of whatever this person recommends, I would advise against learning english from an American. According to Wikipedia only 60% of Americans are literate. And of those who are literate, most can only read at the 7th grade level.

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I'm not exactly sure where you're seeing a figure of 60% in that article - even accepting the worst-case numbers, with the recognition that they've provided their own definition for what "literacy" means, they put the figure at somewhere between 65 and 85%. –  GalacticCowboy Apr 15 at 19:26
    
Lazy rounding :) –  Shane Apr 15 at 19:30
    
WRT May/Do you mind: For any non-native speaker, I would STRONGLY recommend the former, specifically because of the expected response. The two questions have opposite responses for the same answer; if you're permitted to perform the action, "May I..." will be answered with "Yes," while "Do you mind if I..." will be answered with "No." (And vice-versa.) This is a common stumbling block for exchange students to from all over the world coming to the US. –  Brian S Apr 15 at 19:31
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Prescriptively, can or could is fundamentally about ability and by extension capability, may or might about possibility and by extension permission, do you mind is about opinion and by extension preference. In practice, all questions can be taken and answered as equivalent, and the answer would be whatever the person feels most appropriate e.g. if it is about smoking - I might say: "it is permitted, but I'd prefer if you didn't" (if my status was high enough) or "please go ahead" (even if I hate cigarette smoke but am at a status disadvantage). In all these cases, "please come in". –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 8:34

Is it true, and if so, to what extent?

An axiom of communication is to understand (expect and accept) a wide range of forms from other people.

  • I'd agree with your teacher if he says that those second forms are often used instead of the first forms.

  • I'd disagree with your teacher if he says that those first forms are "outdated" meaning obsolete or archaic (maybe they're uncommon in Alaska, I don't know, but they're still used elsewhere)

Forms like "will", "shall", "can", "must", "should", and "may" have distinct and precise meanings. They're used in technical literature, and are spoekn in polite society. Using them may mark you as, not only an English-speaker, but a well-educated one.

"We have to" and "Do you mind if" are also correct and polite.

"We don't gotta" is some form of slang.

Slang is part of the language too: you need to be able to understand it, because some people will speak it. Because some people will speak it, you may want to be able to speak it too sometimes, if you want to try to sound like you belong to that 'ingroup'.

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I would say your teacher's view ìs an oversimplification on school level. There is no way around knowing the handful of modal verbs as they are the verbs most frequently used. And, of course, you have to know their substitue forms.

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I have to argue. In school, we are not being taught English, but some fixed snapshot of the English. And while we learn for 10 or more years, language changes severely. I only wish I can be up-to-date. –  Denis Kulagin Apr 15 at 8:54
    
@DenisKulagin I do find it rather surprising however that your teacher wouldn't root for modal verbs. Seems like something that has always been dear to English teachers. –  Pierre Arlaud Apr 15 at 11:52
    
@Arlaud Pierre His a native speaker and that's it. He is teaching, but he definetelly doesn't have any special education. And that's what makes his lessons so interesting. Instead of learning some boring stuff and rope learning, he teaches us modern language and allows us to discuss day-related topics, which is more intresting than reading some dumm coursebooks. –  Denis Kulagin Apr 15 at 11:57
    
It always was a torture at school, when you know English better than your teacher, but have to agree with he/she in order to avoid trouble and sustain teacher's authority. Now it's not the issue - you can't argue with native speaker about knowing language better. –  Denis Kulagin Apr 15 at 12:00
    
@DenisKulagin Yes, but native English speakers can't agree with his English claims; heck, I'm not a native speaker myself and I surely disagree with it. "We don't gotta go yet" is bad English, I've heard "may I come in" a couple of time (also consider that it's in fact much shorter and easier to say that his alternative), and I see no problem with the verb "must". That being said, alternative are useful for other tenses, for instance the future of "I can come" is "I will be able to come". –  Pierre Arlaud Apr 15 at 12:27

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