v23: måste

English has a group of verbs which serve to modify the main verb of the sentence in interesting ways. Such verbs as may, might, can, must, should. They are unusual because they don’t inflect like normal verbs (you must, *he musts), don’t have a complete tense paradigm (*you musted), and take other verbs (or maybe verb phrases?) as complements. So it’s a stretch to call them verbs. In English, they’re called modal verbs, or perhaps more clearly modal auxiliary verbs. That is, auxiliary verbs whose purpose is to indicate modality.

I’m going to stick with the SIL explanation of modality: mood and modality are about possibility, necessity, and reality, the difference being mood is about grammatical structure whereas modality is about meaning.

I gather that modal verbs are common across Germanic languages, and in Swedish they’re called hjälpverb, examples being kan, ska, vill. I want to look at must = måste. It seems fairly obvious that this is about obligation:

Du måste springa.
You must run.

But what’s the opposite of must? What is lack of obligation? In English, you must not run expresses an obligation to not run, rather than a lack of obligation to run. For example, consider possible synonyms for must (English is full of these, they’re not modal verbs by the way): need to, have to, be obliged to. In each case, don’t need to, don’t have to, be not obliged to, are not the same as must not.

It may not surprise you to learn that Swedish does it differently:

Du måste inte springa.
You don’t have to run.

To express negative obligation in Swedish, use the following construction:

Du får inte springa.
You must not run.

Now you can make sense of the motto of a local Thai restaurant:

Det måste inte vara starkt men det måste vara gott!
It need not be strong but it must be good!

I’m always hoping the motto refers to the food, rather than to the take-away bags on which it’s printed!

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Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 00:06  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This means I have been giving instructions to small children incorrectly!

    • I guess “You don’t have to play on the road” and “You don’t have to hit your sister” do kind of lack that stamp of authority!

  2. […] I recently wrote about modal verbs. Both Swedish and English have another group of verbs generally called modal equivalents (or […]


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