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What is the grammar of the verb 'dare' in the following example?

The pizza was nice but, dare I say it, the salad was awful. 

Is it some type of imperative?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Dare (like need) is a semi-modal verb, which means that in certain environments (see Negative Polarity), of which Yes/No Questions are one, dare may be used as a modal auxiliary verb.

If you substitute any other modal for dare in the sentence, you'll see what I mean:

  • The pizza was nice but, may I say it, the salad was awful.
  • The pizza was nice but, can I say it, the salad was awful.
  • The pizza was nice but, might I say it, the salad was awful.

These aren't all idioms like dare I say, and of course they don't mean the same, but they illustrate how modals work in questions. The only unusual thing is using dare as a modal verb here.

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Excellent answer - thanks for that. – nicholas ainsworth Dec 10 '11 at 6:27
+1 for the answer, but I'd just add that I tend to punctuate such sentences as 'The pizza was nice but - dare I say it? - the salad was awful.' – Barrie England Dec 10 '11 at 7:48
Such punctuation is intended to indicate the intonation that holds the ideas together in speech, which is widely variable, so any punctuation that works for the author may well work for the reader. There isn't any right or wrong. – John Lawler Dec 10 '11 at 16:28

The statement "I dare (to) say it" one would expect to become a question as "Do I dare say it?" (and I would not object to that) ... But--as noted by John Lawler--"dare" is sometimes an auxiliary verb, and then it doesn't need the "do" so we can have "Dare I say it?". The other examples, "can, might" are auxiliary verbs only, so they will always act like this, and we CANNOT make questions like "*Do I can say it?" or "*Do I might say it?"

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