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According to the dictionary definitions (e.g. in Merriam-Webster) , "should" is the past of "shall" and "might" is the past of "may":

But are these modal verbs really used as such? I know they are frequently used with other meanings (as confirmed by their other definitions in the dictionary), but my question is if they are really used with their original meaning of past tense for "shall" and "may".

I give two examples below. Do the present and past versions have the exact same meaning (except for the tense, of course)?

1) MAY / MIGHT

Present: When he is at school, he may not go to the bathroom without asking for permission.

Past: When he was at school, he might not go to the bathroom without asking for permission.

2) SHALL / SHOULD

Present: He thinks that they shall go the restaurant.

Past: He thought that they should go the restaurant.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Both of the past-tense examples sound somewhat archaic, but that is to some extent because the use of shall in the present-tense sentences does also, imo. (The use of present-tense may in the second sentence sounds formal, but not archaic.)

Probably the last person I heard use might and should with these specific meanings was my grandmother, who learned English as a foreign language about 100 years ago (literally). If your questions is whether you should :-) use the words with these meanings, I would say no, as it will simply be confusing. To convey the past-tense sense of these, you might have to come up with workarounds:

When he was at school, he was not allowed to go to the bathroom ...

He thought that they would go to the restaurant.

Hmm, that second one is tricky, but it's the result of substituting the non-archaic will for shall in the present tense.

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The dictionary is technically correct (as might be expected) but you should consider that informal english does not necessarily conform to the proper and exact denotations.

In the example above, "might" is used for the past-tense construction of "may" in a manner which is perhaps more familiar to persons who are not in the habit of reading Dickens. Mike Pope is correct in asserting that few people currently are in the habit of using the proper past-tense constructions of those words.

Off the top of my head, the only use of the word "might" in reference to the past-tense of "may" rather than as an indicator of probability or the completely unrelated denotation of strength is in the (archaic but still current) poem "Star Light, Star Bright" where it is used to rhyme with "night."

"Should" is a similar case; it is somewhat conflated with "shall" but with the same probablistic connotations that "might" is burdened with; most uses that I see in current language are (unhappily) people applying wishful thinking to functioning of processes, e.g., "Rebooting the computer should fix the problem."

It is still proper to use these words in their appropriate functions, I think, provided that you make clear from the context your intended meaning.

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I've never heard "might" in Twinkle twinkle little star. Wikipedia has "light" rhyming with night. –  Ophiuroid Oct 8 '10 at 5:16
    
Good catch there; I had intended "Star Light, Star Bright" but got some wires crossed. Mea culpa! –  munin Oct 8 '10 at 15:36
    
The past tense "might" also shows up in the fixed expression "try as we might": Try as we might we could not shake off the grizzly bear. The (much less common) present tense is also used: Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. (John Cage) –  psmears Mar 1 '11 at 6:22
    
Actually, thinking about it, the example I mentioned in my comment on Nick's answer also works here, to show might used as the past tense of may: "I think I may be ill" versus "I thought I might be ill". –  psmears Mar 1 '11 at 6:48

It depends. Technically yes, but "should" and "might" are also the subjunctive form and imperfect forms of "shall" and "may". They can be used as conditionals, too, which is basically the subjunctive form in essence. Here are some examples that one could argue their being the past tense forms of "shall" and "may":

"I should have gone to the movies." "I shall go to the movies."

"I might have known the answer." "I may know the answer."

There are other ways to show this. Technically, the past of "will" is "would" and the past of "can" is, get this, "could". No way lol! The only other very common modal is "must" and its past tense is a pathetic "must" so no change. There are other modals besides these, but they are usually considered "semi-modals" because they can be used as normal verbs, too.

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Are you sure about the "No way lol"? How about: "I find I can tolerate it" in the present, versus "I found I could tolerate it" in the past? Similarly "I think I will stay", versus "I thought I would stay"? –  psmears Mar 1 '11 at 6:27
    
@psmears: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language notes that the 'backshifting' that occurs for reported speech isn't a true shift tense, it isn't a reflection of a true past tense, which anyone can see for themselves if the look at what actually happens in such a shift. They also note that this "reporting" exists in a much wider range than most realize. –  Dan Apr 22 '11 at 15:12
    
@psmears: [continued] The connection you think you see between "I think I will stay", versus "I thought I would stay" isn't a syntactic one, which is what a past tense does. It is defined by how we report speech. Saying "I thought I would stay" doesn't discuss any consideration of 'staying'. That would be done by "I stayed" or "I didn't stay" or some other description of a fact situation. –  Dan Apr 22 '11 at 15:15
    
@Dan: I don't have access to a copy of CGEL here, but I think the distinction it's trying to make there is a subtle one, and not one that contradicts my main point. It's true to say that the backshift doesn't necessarily represent a semantic past tense (for instance: "I promise I will come at 4.00" => "I promised I would come at 4.00 and I will do so" - the action is very much in the future in each instance). However, it most certainly is a past tense in form, and just as I may deduce from the shift "I know you are coming" => "I knew you were coming" that were is the past of are,… –  psmears Apr 24 '11 at 12:19
    
…it is valid to infer that would is the past form of will. Moreover, the same is true outside of "reporting" (and you're right that many non-speech verbs speech do use a "reporting" structure) - I only chose it because it is idiomatic from formal writing to informal speech. The parallel persists in main clauses: "I don't know my results but I will find out later today" => "I didn't know my results but I would find out later that day". Uncommon in speech, perhaps, this is wholly grammatical and appropriate in written language (and unlike similar use of "should", not at all archaic). –  psmears Apr 24 '11 at 12:20

Contrary to many of the other answers, many of the modal verbs that are listed in the dictionary as the past tense of another modal are in fact still used commonly used in that way in modern English - but sometimes only in certain senses. But the other answers are spot on that correct use of modals in English is a minefield for the learner :-)

  • May/might: The two most common uses of may are to indicate permission ("I'm about to tell the students they may ask questions after the class") and possibility ("I think it may rain later"). While it's technically correct to use might for the past tense of both, only the possibility sense works well: "I thought it might rain later" is identical to its counterpart apart from the tense, whereas "I was about to tell the students they might ask questions after the class" sounds slightly odd because the "unlikely possibility" sense of might comes to mind first - and, while the context here makes it clear that's unlikely, the reader will likely have to pause to figure that out. This difference between the meanings is why example 1 in the question sounds a little strange.

  • Can/could: This works in all senses - for example: "I think I can do it" -> "I thought I could do it"; "I'm told I can have one" -> "I was told I could have one"; "He can't have eaten it all by now" -> "He couldn't have eaten it all by then".

  • Will/would: Again, this works in all senses: "I know someone will take the job" -> "I knew someone would take the job"; "These days he will lose his temper at the drop of a hat" -> "In those days he would lose his temper at the drop of a hat"; "I think that will work" -> "I thought that would work" etc.

  • Shall/should: This is largely the exception to the rule - use of should as a past of shall is somewhat archaic, largely because shall is, itself, archaic in most uses. In practice the "obligation" sense of should dominates. For instance, "You shall go to the ball" tells Cinderella emphatically what is about to happen, whereas "The fairy godmother told Cinderella she should go to the ball" implies that Cinderella was told of an obligation upon her rather than a prediction of her future. Of course, this is why there seems to be a meaning shift in example 2 from the question.

    The one sense in which should does almost work as the past tense of shall is the use of shall for commands ("You shall leave!" -> "I told them they should leave"), though they are not equivalent in tone (the former is a very forceful command given with confidence that it will be obeyed, whereas the latter gives a sense that it is better to leave than not to, but that there is some choice involved in the matter).

(In producing the examples I've used the definitions from Merriam Webster - I've tried to cover the common definitions, but I've ignored some of the rarer ones, and some examples span more than one definition.)

Update: Note that I've used a "reporting" or "reported speech" structure in the examples, because using the past forms of the modals there in the way I've described is idiomatic in both formal and informal contexts, in all the dialects I'm familiar with. Some might argue that this is not a "true" past tense, but an artefact of the way we construct "reporting" clauses (because, for example, in the sentence "I promised that I would come and I will come" the action of "coming" is entirely in the future). However, exactly the same usages are possible with the modal verb in a main clause (though this is more common in written than spoken English). For instance: "Later today I will find out my result" => "Later that day I would find out my result"; "Now I can jump three yards" => "Then I could jump three yards [but I can't any more]".

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My apologies if this shows up odd. I'm not familiar with the functions above the YOUR ANSWER box

According to the dictionary definitions (e.g. in Merriam-Webster) , "should" is the past of "shall" and "might" is the past of "may":

But are these modal verbs really used as such? I know they are frequently used with other meanings (as confirmed by their other definitions in the dictionary), but my question is if they are really used with their original meaning of past tense for "shall" and "may".

No, they are not used that way, Bruno. That's very perceptive of you. In modern English, the modal verbs are tenseless. They have neither past or present tense.

I give two examples below. Do the present and past versions have the exact same meaning (except for the tense, of course)?

1) MAY / MIGHT

Present: When he is at school, he may not go to the bathroom without asking for permission.

Past: When he was at school, he might not go to the bathroom without asking for permission.

2) SHALL / SHOULD

Present: He thinks that they shall go the restaurant.

Past: He thought that they should go the restaurant.

These are not examples of past and present tense. Your examples have nothing to do with tense. The backshifting that occurs in examples like these [may --> might; will --> would; can --> could] have nothing to do with an actual tense change, eg.

I'm going to jump over the line.

I jump*ed* over the line.

The only reason for this backshifting in your examples is to denote that the speech is not a direct quote. As an example, lets use my example above, about the 'jumping'.

A: I'm going to jump over the line.

B: [to C] What did he say, C?

C: He said [that] he was going to jump over the line.

What C said doesn't constitute a finished action, which would trigger the use of true past tense usage. Again, the only reason for the backshift to the past tense FORM "was", is to tell the listener,

"I'm not vouching that this is exactly what he said, I'm only giving you a general description of the event".

The use of 'said' does denote a true past tense. What he said is finished, past, hence the use of a real past tense, as opposed to the use of a past tense FORM.

We know that this isn't a past time event because even in a semantic sense, it doesn't describe a past event. The event hasn't happened yet. A is still standing there waiting his turn to jump over the line.

We also know it isn't a real past event because native speakers have a choice as to whether we backshift or not.

C could also say [note 'could' describes a future potential event, NOT a past one]

C: He said [that] he is going to jump over the line.

Notice the use of "is" rather than "was". Native speakers often maintain the present tense FORM when the event is current, happening right now.

So to review. Modal verbs are tenseless verb forms. Their jobs are to add emotive senses to speech and writing and in the SPECIAL case of REPORTED SPEECH, they also are used to mark speech as reported.

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Are you sure about the "No way lol"? How about: "I find I can tolerate it" in the present, versus "I found I could tolerate it" in the past? Similarly "I think I will stay", versus "I thought I would stay"?

How about: "I find I could tolerate it" in the present?

1) How about: "I can jump three yards" in the present, [with a future meaning]

with

2) *I could jump three yards.

[* denotes ungrammatical for the situation]

as a description of that now finished action that describes 1).

What we see is that 2) is ungrammatical in attempting to describe the finished action of 1), yet it's claimed that 'could' is the past tense of 'can'? Sentence 2) can't be used in English to describe that finished action.

The only meaning it has in English is a future one; it holds the same meaning as sentence 1) using 'can' but it is a more tentative/doubtful expression.

Similarly with will and would.

1) I will jump three yards.

as an expression of a future action.

2) I would jump three yards

does not describe the finished state of sentence 1). If a speaker chose sentence 2) as a way to express the finished state of 1), then it too would be ungrammatical. Its only meaning is also a future one, with the same meaning as sentence 1) with only a change in the level of doubt/certainty.

Why can't 'would', the purported past tense form of 'will', function as a true past tense?

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I find I could tolerate it is fine in the present, but not relevant to the question: everybody agrees that the "past" modals can be used in other ways :). As for your other examples, I disagree that they are ungrammatical. For the jumping example: someone describing the scenario later on might say: "Nobody believed me when I said, 'I can jump three yards'. I could jump three yards. You saw me do it.". The same is true for will/would: "Later today I will jump three whole yards" versus "Later that day I would jump three whole yards". On what basis do you claim this common usage is wrong? –  psmears Apr 24 '11 at 12:45

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