In my studies of both theoretical and applied English linguistics, we studied English modals more than once. So a question came up on this site earlier today. I explained that "need to" is a modal. One of the users claimed that it is not.

Question: Is not "need to" a modal?

  • Is there an accepted definition of a modal verb? Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 3:57
  • Of or denoting the mood of a verb. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 4:00

1 Answer 1


The modality of need and dare (sometimes called "semi-modals") is a matter of Negative Polarity. Their meaning is modal, but their syntax is variable.

Inside the scope of a negative, they can be used as modals; outside it, they can't.
(Sentences with an asterisk in front are ungrammatical)

  • You need to talk to Bill. ~ You don't need to talk to Bill.
  • *You need talk to Bill. - You need not talk to Bill.

  • He dares to protest ~ He doesn't dare (to) protest.

  • *He dare protest ~ He dare not protest.

As to whether need to "is a modal", that depends on

  • whether you allow anything with a modal meaning, like maybe or have to, to be modals
  • whether you allow verbs with to, like have to, need to, dare to, and want to to be modals
  • whether you allow verbs that inflect for tense (like dared to or needs to) to be modals

and probably a few other things.

All modals are complicated, each modal is unique, and there are simply no general rules about them.

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