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According to Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, modal auxiliary verbs do not normally have past tenses:

The modal auxiliary verbs are will, would, shall, should, can, could, ought, may, might, and must. Their grammar is different from that of other verbs: for example, they have no infinitives, participles or past tenses [...] Modal verbs do not have infinitives or participles (to may, maying, mayed do not exist), and they do not normally have past forms.

So can each modal auxiliary verb be considered to be in the present tense (in form, not meaning)? Since the modal auxiliary verbs are finite and they do not have past tense forms (according to Michael Swan's Practical English Usage), each must be in a present tense form.

Or are will, can, may and shall the present tenses (in form, not meaning) and would, could, might and should the past tenses (in form, not meaning)?

What about the modal auxiliary must?

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    Does "Practical English Usage" only have one sentence saying something like "modal auxiliary verbs do not normally have past tenses", or does Swan give more explanation of what he means by that? I think it would depend on what you mean by "past tense". – sumelic Dec 24 '17 at 23:51
  • @sumelic The following is a quote from Michael Swan's Practical English Usage: "The modal auxiliary verbs are will, would, shall, should, can, could, ought, may, might and must. Their grammar is different from that of other verbs: for example, they have no infinitives, participles or past tenses...Modal verbs do not have infinitives or participles (to may, maying, mayed do not exist), and they do not normally have past forms". – user217372 Dec 25 '17 at 10:33
  • @sumelic By "past tense", I mean the form of the modal verb. I'm not talking about the meaning. – user217372 Dec 25 '17 at 11:02
  • But toucans exist. Image from animals.sandiegozoo.org/sites/default/files/2016-11/…. ;-) – Jim Dec 25 '17 at 15:53
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    This essentially comes down to how you prefer to describe the language. Some would say that can and could are two completely unrelated modal verbs in Modern English which both have only one form; others would say that they are the morphological present- and past-tense forms of the same verb, which happens not to have any other morphological forms than those two. There are arguments for and against both views. There is no final, authoritative answer on this. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '17 at 16:01
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Modals have neither a past tense nor a present participle. Let's take the example of "can", in the sentence, "I can play the piano." The past tense of can doesn't exist; there is no such word as "can-ed". To express the intention of "I 'can-ed' play the piano", you must paraphrase: "I have been able to play the piano." Similar workarounds are required for "may" ("I was allowed to play the piano.") The lack of a present participle for modals poses the same problem, and requires the same tactic of paraphrase: "Can-ing play the piano makes me very happy" becomes "Being able to play the piano makes me very happy."

"Must" has no past tense. "Must-ed you have missed your son's ball game?" is expressed by, "Did you have to miss your son's ball game?".

There was a time when the Germanic origins of American English indeed regarded "could", "might", "should", and "would" as past tense forms of modals, but no longer (except for some uses of "could" as the past tense of "can"). SEE, http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/box-modals.html

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    What about "I could play the piano", for example in the sentence "Sally knew that I could play the piano" (which looks like a past-tense equivalent of "Sally knows that I can play the piano")? Is that what you mean by "some uses of 'could' "? Why doesn't it ever apply to "might" and "would"? – sumelic Dec 25 '17 at 4:14
  • Yes, that is how I would interpret the guidance regarding can/could. "Might" is the past tense of "may", but not in the sense of being permitted to do something. "I may stay up until midnight" could imply that the speaker is contemplating staying up that long, or that the speaker's mother has given permission to the speaker to stay up that late. In the first case "might" can certainly be used instead of "may", but it still means that the speaker is still considering how late to stay up, and does not render the sentence a statement of an action in the past. – Allen S. Dec 25 '17 at 4:36
  • In the second example, "might" substituting for "may" entirely distorts the meaning, destroying the sense of permission granted by someone other than the speaker. It does not connote that the permission to stay up until midnight was granted in the past. – Allen S. Dec 25 '17 at 4:39
  • I'm sure the extrapolation of the reasoning using "may" and "might" will explain why "would" does not operate as a past tense of a "could" as an auxiliary modal. – Allen S. Dec 25 '17 at 4:42
  • VOA's website gives the example of "She might have been delayed", expressing a degree of likelihood of an event which has taken place in the past. On the other hand, "She may have been delayed" seems to have the identical meaning, but American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel overwhelmingly rejected the use of "may" in the past tense. – Allen S. Dec 25 '17 at 5:01

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