• I want to go

Here 'want to' is a phrasal modal. Do we agree?

Now consider this:

  • I want him to go

Is it possible that in this sentence the pronoun him is the object of the modal auxiliary 'want to'?

Most grammars analyze this totally differently, with 'want' as the main verb and "him to go" as an infinitive functioning as the object of want. I've found in my field (natural language generation) that this causes lots of problems. If you make him the object of the auxiliary "want to", which is admittedly something I never heard of before, it makes the logic more consistent with fewer exceptions.

In verb phrase ellipsis, the verb phrase is dropped leaving just the auxiliary behind (the CODE property). In this you can see strong evidence that "want to" and "want obj to" are auxiliaries.


Do you want to go home? No, I don't want to

Notice the "to" can not be dropped because it is part of the phrasal modal.

Do you want him to go home? No, I don't want him to.

Can Paul come to my party? If you want him to

Here you see that "him" is part of the auxiliary - the object of want to.

  • You could contrive a context where to go connects back to I want rather than him. Consider, for example, I want £100 to go (give me £100 or I won't go). It's just about possible to imagine replacing £100 with him if we're prepared to see him as just an item to be "traded". But want to isn't a "phrasal verb" - you're just using the verb want with the infinitive form to go. Sep 18, 2016 at 17:07
  • @FumbleFingers The claim is that 'want to' is a phrasal MODAL and not a phrasal verb. That is, it's a phrase that functions as an auxiliary of the main verb 'go'. Lots of different classes of words and phrases can have auxiliary function, not just the basic uninflected modals (may/might, must, should, would could, etc).
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 21:08
  • Great question! I don't agree with what you've written at all, but it's a great question. Say, have you read The Morpholexical Nature of English to-Contraction?
    – user28567
    Sep 19, 2016 at 1:52

3 Answers 3


Want cannot be regarded as an auxiliary, since it requires do support for the core ‘NICE’ properties of auxiliaries:

  • Negation: I don't want him to go, not *I want not him to go.
  • Inversion in questions: Do you want him to go?, not *Want you him to go?
  • Code: I don't want him to go, but his wife does, not *I don't want him to go, but his wife wants.
  • Emphasis on polarity: He said I don't want it, but I do want it, not *He said I don't want it, but I want it.
  • Phrasal modals, or semi-modals, or "catenative verbs", or whatever you wish to call them do inflect and can have auxiliaries themselves. The phrasal modal "have to" requires do support for negation and inversion in questions. See: "I don't have to go", and " Do I have to go".
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 18:02
  • @William True; but uses like have to VERB, have got to VERB, be going/fixing/about to VERB, need to, are not regarded as auxiliaries but as catenative lexical verbs employed in idiomatic phrases which paraphrase auxiliaries. Have to has taken a while to achieve full lexicality; it is still occasionally deployed by old-fashioned speakers as an auxiliary: I haven't to go, Have I to go?, I have to go, haven't I?. And have got to is meandering toward losing its have and becoming an odd defective lexical verb: I don't gotta do that, Do I gotta do that?. Sep 18, 2016 at 18:29
  • What you call these phrases doesn't seem significant to me. The point is that these phrases (have to, want to, need to) have the same grammatical function as modal auxiliaries. They are not the main verb.
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 18:39
  • 1
    @WIlliam Not so; they have similar semantic functions, but their syntactic functions are different. Only the left end (which is an auxiliary) behaves like an auxiliary. ... In any case, want doesn't behave like either the actual auxiliaries or these periphrastic constructions. Sep 18, 2016 at 19:17
  • 3
    @William I don't acknowledge that have to "is" an auxiliary; I said only that a few people still use it as one. In addition to the NICE properties, auxiliaries contrast with lexicals in contracting with preceding subjects, supporting following adverbs of frequency (often, always, &c) and quantifying determinatives (each, all, &c), and having negative forms with the clitic n't. Sep 18, 2016 at 20:20

$emember Jelinek's dictum: Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up. You can try to break the rules of the traditional analysis and see what happens. You'll probably find that you create bigger problems elsewhere in your grammar, but won't know until you try.

  • Nope. It's working out. Traditional grammar is wrong. I stopped listening to linguists a long time ago. Modal auxiliary is a grammatical function and not a specific word class. Inflected verbs and whole phrases can function as modal auxiliaries. Phrases like "want to", "have to", "ought to", "need to", "pretend to", "seem to" and so forth function as auxiliaries in the same manner as would/should/could. Other linguists have noticed this before, but it's a minority opinion that's not widely accepted.
    – William
    Apr 15, 2018 at 22:39
  • @William then go for it!
    – user31341
    Apr 15, 2018 at 23:54

Sorry, I don't know much about syntax so this is going to be a partial answer. I hope it's still a bit useful.

As far as I understand, StoneyB is right that "want" is not an auxiliary in this sentence, even if you consider it a modal or semi-modal. This seems to just be a terminology issue though, as I can't see anything else in your question that requires it to be an auxiliary. Probably, it depends on how you define the word "auxiliary".

As for the question of whether "him" can be analyzed as the object of the verb "want": one thing I thought of that may be an issue for this analysis is the apparent ungrammaticality of passivized sentences such as "?He was wanted to go (by me)." If "him" were actually the object of "want" in the sentence "I want him to go," I would expect to be able to transform the sentence into a grammatical passive equivalent like this. Then again, "?A present was wanted (by me)" doesn't sound too good either, so it might just be something specific about the verb "want" that makes passive forms sound bad.

To answer the question in the title, in certain dialects "have" can be treated as an auxiliary (according to the "NICE" criteria mentioned in StoneyB's answer and this slide show from Geoff Pullum's site) and take a direct object at the same time. This sounds archaic in other dialects, but an example is found in the traditional song "Baa Baa Black Sheep" : "Have you any wool?"

  • It's not a semantic (terminology) issue at all. It's a question about grammatical function. If it's not an auxiliary then it has to be the main verb. That would force a completely different analysis of the sentence. Most people say that want is the main verb and "to go" is an infinitive as an object of want. That's what I don't agree with.
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 22:04
  • My claim is that "want to" is an auxiliary of go, like "should" is in "should go", and it (the auxiliary) can have an object. So in a sentence like "I want him to go", the verb go has an auxiliary (want him to), but no object. So no grammatical passive equivalent should exist.
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 22:09
  • And there's evidence that "want to" and "want him to" behave like auxiliaries in the verb phrase ellipsis example that I showed.
    – William
    Sep 18, 2016 at 22:12

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