The verbs dare and need do not require auxiliaries when used in the interrogative; for example, “need I?” is as acceptable as “do I need?”

Excluding the auxiliaries themselves (like be, do, have), are there any other such verbs that work that way?

  • 1
    “He dare not face another question.” See this answer. As for other quasi-modals, you forgot durst, the archaic and dialectal past of dare, and ought. Old Gollum was known to have said, “But we durstn’t go in, precious, no we durstn’t.” – tchrist Feb 10 '13 at 20:15
  • I agree with this distinction. How dare you operate this machinery without proper training? expresses indignation at the action, whereas How do you dare to operate this machinery without proper training? is a genuine request for information. – FumbleFingers Feb 10 '13 at 20:45
  • 1
    Right. And like any other potential distinction in form, it gets exploited to represent a distinction in function. Adaptation is the basis of evolution. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 21:27
  • Have to meaning be obliged to doesn't require further verb-forms in the interrogative: Have I to go through it all over again? But then neither do be and have when used as main verbs. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '13 at 0:00
  • @EdwinAshworth I’m not entirely convinced that your “Have I to go through it all over again” still works for most speakers. On the other hand, “Have you anything to say for yourself, young man?” still works, and I don’t know why those two should be any different in their acceptability. Might you? // Granted that all that’s assuming it means “Have I got to go through it all over again?” — or, with do-support, “Do I have to go through it tall over again?” Otherwise, I don’t know what it means. – tchrist Feb 11 '13 at 0:08

No, not in the same way, but then need and dare are both a little different, anyway.

Need and dare have several peculiarities:

  • They take infinitive complements, like many other verbs, in the affirmative and negative
    He wanted to read it. He didn't want to read it.
    She needs to see them. She doesn't need to see them.
    He dared to contradict them. He didn't dare to contradict them.
  • In negative environments only (and questions are negative environments), need and dare can behave in the peculiar syntactic ways that modal auxiliaries behave in all environments
    (in other words, this "semi-modal" property of need and dare is a Negative Polarity Item)

The syntactic peculiarities of modal verbs include the following:

  1. Modals take infinitives without to.
    He may go. *He may to go.
    He may not go. *He may not to go.
    He dare not go. *He dare not to go.
    He need not attend. *He need not to attend.
  2. Modals are not inflected for person, tense, or number (no -s present or -ed past).
    He might (not) go. *He mights (not) go.
    They must (not) pay attention to this. *They musted (not) pay attention to that.
    She need not consider it further. *She needs not consider it further.
  3. Modals must be the first auxiliary verb in a verb phrase, because they have no inflected forms.
    He can do that. *He shouldn't can do that.
    He can't do that. *He should can't do that.
  4. Modals usually have idiomatic inflectable paraphrases:

    • can : be able to
    • will : be going to /gənə/
    • must : have to /hæftə/
    • should : ought to /ɔɾə/

    For the semimodals the inflectable paraphrases are simply

    • need : need to
    • dare : dare to

So, no, there really aren't any more semimodal verbs in English. But there are lots of individual irregularities among verbs. When you look at the details, you find that every verb is different from every other verb in some syntactic ways.

  • 1
    Over these last few months I've been constantly surprised by the number of grammatical rules/conventions where the "logic" changes completely according to whether it's a "negative environment". I'm tempted to ask on Linguistics whether this is so common in all languages, as opposed to being a peculiarity of English (perhaps associated with its "mongrel" history?). – FumbleFingers Feb 10 '13 at 22:28
  • By all means do. The bibliography at the end of my encyclopedia article on Negation has some links to work on other languages. Negation is a Big Deal -- think about it: where would math be without subtraction, where would logic be without true and false, where would law be without plausible deniability? To pick just the first three of thousands. Negation, along with Quantifiers, and Modals -- all of which I've been mentioning here and there -- are Operators. Not just predicates. They're part of the machinery. – John Lawler Feb 10 '13 at 23:52
  • But by and large, in mathematics, negative operations "mirror" positive ones. And it's the same across the board in theoretical physics. Apart from the fact the we can't get our heads around negative time, symmetry seems to be the rule, but English doesn't seem to reflect math in that respect. I love Feynman's Cornell Lecture on symmetry, where he ends by saying "Watch out if the alien puts out his left hand!" - on account of that's the first indication you'd get that he's made of antimatter (boom, boom! :). – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '13 at 2:10
  • Mathematics is built on language, and mathematical concepts, like symmetry and its ilk, reflect parts of language -- and English -- rather than the opposite. Language is real; mathematics is technology, just like writing. It's a model of natural language, not the other way round. See my Logic Guide for examples. – John Lawler Feb 11 '13 at 2:16
  • 1
    I shall read and hope to inwardly digest that Logic Study Guide. I think it'll make a change for me to immerse myself in that perspective. You're quite right that I take it for granted maths has "built-in symmetry", and that that's not just an internal feature. I assume the "reality" math describes is the same, but I find it harder to look at things that way with natural language (can't see the wood for the trees, and all that). – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '13 at 2:27

Occasionally, people still express questions in this form:

"What say you to a nice cabernet?"

"What think you of our impetuous young friend?"

These aren't standard constructions, however, and their very stiltedness imparts a note of amusement or irony to the question. No such sense attaches to, for example, "How dare you speak to me like that?" or "Need I say more?"

But the first two examples I gave also have this difference from the second two: they don't appear in tandem with a following verb. The expressions "dare...speak" and "need...say" are thus operating in a different way from "say to [this]" or "think of [that]."

A genuinely archaic example of such a construction (from Ezekiel 34:18 in the 1611 King James Bible) involves "seemeth":

Seemeth it a small thing vnto you, to haue eaten vp the good pasture, but yee must tread downe with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to haue drunke of the deepe waters, but ye must foule the residue with your feete?


All modals act this way, and though 'dare' and 'need' aren't usually modal, they can act that way. Should, will, would, can, could, may, might, must, ought (yes, I left out 'shall', a bit too old-fashioned).

Should I answer this question?


Dare I answer this question?

are perfectly fine (the former is very everyday; the latter is a bit 1950's sounding and wouldn't be commonly used nowadays).

Need I answer this question?

is questionable to me. I don't think it sounds right, but I do figure that others might (again maybe from the 1950's).

  • 'Ought' behaves very differently from the others. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 30 '16 at 10:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.