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There are 9 modal verbs, and you can pair every two of them together to represent present and past forms, except must:

can ----› could

shall --› should

will ---› would

may ----› might

must ---› ????

So what's the past form of the modal verb must? Some people say it's had to, but I searched and found that had to isn't a modal verb, so what is it?

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Well, that's not quite the way to put it. Those paired modals do not really mean 'Present' and 'Past', respectively. Or, if they do, then must has to be considered to be Past, with a Present form that's missing.

Here's how it works. In English, the modal auxiliary verbs have been formed historically from present and preterite stems -- that's where the 'Present' and 'Past' stories come from; but all the inflected forms based on them have been lost. So English modal auxiliaries are units, uninflectable and fixed in form, each with its own set of idiomatic, irregular, illogical, unpredictable, and constantly changing grammar and usage rules.

There is one context in which some of these pairs do function in time reference, e.g,

  • When I was young, I could do 100 pushups; now I can only do 99.

But not all of them, and not usually; what could this sentence even mean?

  • *When I was young, I should do 100 pushups; now I shall only do 99.

Plus most of the actual uses of modals refer to the present or future, not the past.

And, to top it off, must comes from the Past root of the modal, not the Present. German, which didn't lose the inflected forms of its modals, has muss as the present tense form and musste as the past.

  • Er muss schlafen. 'He must/has to sleep'
  • Er musste schlafen. 'He had to sleep'

Nobody knows why English didn't keep the present form of must, but it didn't. However, it doesn't matter in the long run, because Present/Past is the least of the differences between modals. There's also the distinctions between Possible and Necessary, Epistemic and Deontic, and Auxiliary and Periphrastic, among others. Modals are complicated.


EDIT: To see just how complicated, here's the OED etymology, as promised in comments, for the mote (v) in So mote it be!, which is the only remnant left in English of the present tense of what became must.

[A WGer. and Gothic preterite-present verb (wanting in Scandinavian): OE; mót corresp. to OFris. môt, OS. môt, muot may, must (Dutch moet must), OHG., MHG. muo/enticons/hgz.gif may, must (mod.G. muss must), Goth. ga-mo-macr.gift (it) has room, related to OHG. muohgz.gifa (mod.G. musse) leisure:-OTeut. type *momacr.giftamacr.gif.

The primary sense seems to be that preserved in Gothic, from which the sense 'is permitted, may' can easily have been developed. The transition from this to the sense 'is obliged, must' is more difficult to explain; it may have arisen from the use in negative contexts, where the two senses ('may not', 'must not') are nearly coincident.

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    '... idiomatic, irregular, illogical, unpredictable, and constantly changing'. And we've only been in lockdown for 24 hours. Mar 24, 2020 at 19:54
  • You say must has to be considered to be Past, with a Present form that's missing. Am I wrong in thinking that "Freemason / Illuminati"-style So mote it be is a (now rare elsewhere) example of the archaic "Present Tense must"? Jun 5, 2022 at 11:35
  • @FumbleFingers Yes. I'll append the OED's etymology for mote v.1, which is interesting. Jun 5, 2022 at 13:24
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    Dang, that sure is some murky etymology! :) Jun 6, 2022 at 10:58

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