The translation of the modal verbs: "may, might, can, could, would, should"

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Karaganda 2010




1.1 Modal Verbs in Middle English

1.2 Role and Functions of Modal Verbs in Modern English

1.3 Main types of Modal Verbs in Modern English


2.1 The meaning of Modal Verbs in translation

2.2 Differences and peculiarities of the usage of Modal Verbs in newspapers and fiction

2.3 The usage of Modal Verbs in Business English




translation modal verb

The theme of the course paper is The Translation of The Modal Verbs: May, Might, Can, Could, Would, Should. Modal Verbs are unlike other verbs. They do not denote actions or states, but only show the attitude of the speaker towards the actions expressed by the infinitive is combination with which they form compound modal predicates. These Modal Verbs may show that the action (or state, of process, or quality) is viewed by the speaker as possible, obligatory, doubtful, certain, permissible, advisable, requested, prohibited, order etc. Modal Verbs are used only with the infinitive. The choice of meaning is to a great degree determined by communicative type of the sentence and the form of the infinitive. It is important to realize that the Modal Verbs have no meaning by themselves.

The aim of the given work is research Modal Verbs formation and difficulties connected with their usage. Also, to show the peculiarities of Modal Verbs, how Modal Verbs can be used, translate, in what case we need to use one or the other Modal Verbs and why.

To accomplish the aim the following tasks are set:

Analyze the peculiarities of the Modal Verbs

Learnt the use of Modal Verbs correctly

Realize the peculiarities of translation of the Modal Verbs from English to Russian

Examine the usage of Modal Verbs in different styles.

Structurally the work consists of Introduction, two Chapters, Conclusion, Bibliography and Appendix.

In the first Chapter the author gives the nation and the description of Modal Verbs, studies the role, translation of the Modal Verbs, function and importance of the usage Modal Verbs in different periods of the development of the English language.

In the second Chapter the author analyzes the peculiarities of the usage of Modal Verbs in different style and studies the problem facing the translation in the process of translation of Modal Verbs from English into Russian.

The results of the aims and tasks set in Introduction are demonstrated in Conclusion.

Bibliography contains 20 sources. The main are:

1. Н. А. Коробина, Е. А. Корнеева, М. И. Оссовская, К. А. Гузеева. «Грамматика английского языка: Морфология и синтаксис»

2. И. П. Крылова, Е. М. Гордон «Modality in Modern English»

3. Е. В Угарова, «Все модальные глаголы английского языка»

4. Т. А. Комова, «Модальные глаголы в языке и речи»

In Appendix we can see the tables of the translation and usage of Modal Verbs and other tables.

This work can be used for the further study of Modal Verbs by students at

the lessons of the Theoretical and Practical Grammar and for the further research.


1.1 The History of Modal Verbs in the Middle English Period

In this essay author will analyse the Modal Verbs in Middle English. There are many verbs in English during the period known as Middle English. This essay exhumes two particular kinds of these verbs, called model verbs to distinguish them from non-model or other verbs. Non-model verbs are called main or laxative verbs, and are infected at the end. Model verbs, on the other hand, although they are laxative to begin with in the end they are model verbs.

There are two principled non-laxative model verbs. These are will, which means «shall» and is used non-laxatively to show topographical distinctions. Then there is shall, which means «will» but was not used to show topography, instead for future reference. And then there is the model verb may, who’s past tense form is «could». This is called an unregular verb, and is not laxative, unlike the others. Another unregular verb was the laxative BE, which meant «shall». This verb is so unregular that it was invented by a scholar called Verner in the 5th century BC. It is called the jugular verb. Unfortunately it is impossible to see it in Middle English, because by that time there were no jugulars.

Non-laxative verbs start as laxatives, and have laxative meanings. They were also very tense at this period. Although later they got less tense. In the beginning they had ranges of proper meaning. shall for example behaved just like BE, and BE behaved exactly the same as will, since all of them meant «had to» which expressed abrogation, although there are no abrogative model verbs as such. The verb used to mean abrogation was the verb go, which also went into the future. Go was also a jugular verb, although it was also non-laxative.

There is also a basal split to make between strong verbs and weak verbs. Strong verbs are tense, but weak verbs are less tense. They are tense, but not in the same way as tense laxatives. There are two main examples of strong and weak verbs. One is the verb might which comes from could and is a strong laxative. Another is the verb seem, which is only a weak laxative, and not tense. It is the present of the jugular verb BE. Another is the verb dare and aught. This is called a dummy laxative at this time.

What happened is difficult to describe in words. The strong laxatives got emptied. This is called semantic bleeding, and involved tense verbs loosing their real meanings and getting functional instead. At this period the laxative verbs also got very strictly ordered, so that the most impotent verb came first. When this happened it was impossible for such verbs to be used as a brace, and therefore they could never come at the end, not even when other non-laxative verbs were being subordinate.

One very troublesome verb was the word do. This could be laxative or non-laxative, and it was either tense or not tense. If it was tense it had the form must, and was otherwise like shall. It could be inserted at will into a dummy, which was also called a derogative Claus, but only if it was used once in that Claus, when it was called «lympathic do». When do was not lymphatic it could be used in statements.

One example of such a statement is found in Dainti’s masterpiece of the period `Paradise Lust', although it was in Spanish. Spanish had different rules, because all model verbs were functional and all of them came after everything else. It was a low-stress language and very influenzal in the revelation of Middle English, because Middle English got less tense, as demonstrated by the emanation of laxative and non-laxative verbs.

In this part author has shown how Model Verbs revolve in Middle English. In conclusion author will summarize the studied information: first, laxative verbs were not functional, and functional verbs could also be lymphatic, especially do. And last there were three non-laxative verbs, shall, must, seem, and go. These verbs got irregular, and less tense, because they occurred in a derogative Claus and were subject to semantic bleeding, or dramaticalization as scholars have called it.

1.2 Functions of the Modal Verbs in Modern English

Modal auxiliary verbs give more information about the function of the main verb that follows it. Although having a great variety of communicative functions, these functions can all be related to a scale ranging from possibility (can) to necessity (must). Within this scale there are two functional divisions:

one concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including ability, permission and duty), and the other (shall not included) concerns itself with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true, including likelihood and certainty:

must = absolute (often moral) obligation, order, requirement, necessity; can/could = physical or mental ability; may/might = permission, option, choice; will = intention in 1st person, volition in 2nd and 3rd persons; and shall/should = in 1st person objective though not moral obligation, no choice, as in: One day I shall die: we all shall die one day; in 2nd and third persons shall implies an incumbent obligation, destiny (It shall come to pass) or a command, decree, necessity imposed by the speaker, as in: A meeting shall take place on the last Friday of every month or a promise, namely that the speaker is stating his obligation to another party that an action or event take place, as in: You shall go to the ball, Cinderella. However, if a speaker states: I will let you go to the ball, Cinderella, in stating his intention, he is, in this instance, also making a promise.

Most modal auxiliary verbs have two distinct interpretations, epistemic (expressing how certain the factual status of the embedded proposition is) and deontic (involving notions of permission and obligation). The following sentences illustrate the two uses of must:

epistemic: You must be starving. (= «It is necessarily the case that you are starving. «)

deontic: You must leave now. (= «You are required to leave now. «)

ambiguous: You must speak Spanish.

epistemic = «It is surely the case that you speak Spanish (e.g., after having lived in Spain for ten years). «

deontic = «It is a requirement that you speak Spanish (e.g., if you want to get a job in Spain). «

Epistemic modals can be analyzed as raising verbs, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verbs.

Another form of modal auxiliary is the verb indicating ability: «can» in English, «kцnnen» in German, and «possum» in Latin.

Example: «I can say that in English»

«Ich kann das auf Deutsch sagen»

«Illud Latine dicere possum. «

Sometimes, the use of the modal auxiliary verbs varies in positive and negative statements. For example, in English, we have the sentence pair, «You may do that,» and «You may not do that.» However, in German, these ideas are expressed as «Sie dьrfen das tun,» but «Sie mьssen das nicht tun.» The latter looks as if it would translate into English as «You must not do that,» but it is more typically translated as «You may not do that. «

This table lists some modal verbs with common roots in English, German and Dutch. English modal auxiliary verb provides an exhaustive list of modal verbs in English.

Words in the same row share the same etymological root. Because of semantic drift, however, words in the same row may no longer be proper translations of each other. In addition, the English and German verbs will are completely different in meaning, and the German one has nothing to do with constructing the future tense. These words are false friends.

In English, the plural and singular forms are identical. For German and Dutch, both the plural and singular form of the verb are shown.

Please note that the words in this list are not translations of each other. (See above.)

English German Dutch

can kцnnen, kann kunnen, kan

shall sollen, soll zullen, zal

will wollen, will willen, wil

may mцgen, mag mogen, mag

The English could is the past tense of can; should is the past tense of shall; and might is the past tense of may. (This is ignoring the use of «may» as a vestige of the subjunctive mood in English.) These verbs have acquired an independent, present tense meaning. The German verb mцchten is sometimes taught as a vocabulary word and included in the list of modal verbs, but it is actually the past subjunctive form of mцgen. An example of the subjective use of «may» in English is in the sentence «That may be, or may not be,» meaning «That could be true, but maybe it is not. «

The English verbs dare and need have both a modal use (he dare not do it), and a non-modal use (he doesn’t dare to do it). The Dutch verb durven is not considered a modal (but it is there, nevertheless) because its modal use has disappeared, but it has a non-modal use analogous with the English dare. Other English modal verbs include want, wish, hope, and like. All of these differ from the main modals in English (i.e. most of those in the table above) in that they take the particle to in the infinitive, like all other English verbs (may; to want), and are followed by to when they are used as a modal (may go; want to go). Some may be more than one word, such as «had better» and «would rather. «


Germanic modal verbs are preterite-present verbs, which means that their present tense has the form of a vocalic preterite. This is the source of the vowel alternation between singular and plural in German and Dutch. Because of their preterite origins, modal verbs also lack the suffix (-s in modern English, -t in German and Dutch) that would normally mark the third person singular form:

normal verb modal verb

English he works he can

German er arbeitet er kann

Dutch hij werkt hij kan

The main verb that is modified by the modal verb is in the infinitive form and is not preceded by the word to (German: zu, Dutch: te). There are verbs that may seem somewhat similar in meaning to modal verbs (e.g. like, want), but the construction with such verbs would be different:

normal verb modal verb

English he tries to work he can work

German er versucht zu arbeiten er kann arbeiten

Dutch hij probeert te werk hij kan werken

In English, main verbs but not modal verbs always require the auxiliary verb do to form negations and questions, and can be used to form emphatic affirmative statements. Neither negations nor questions in early modern English used to require do.

normal verb modal verb

affirmative he works he can work

negation he does not work he cannot work

emphatic he does work hard he can work hard

question does he work here? can he work at all?

negation + question does he not work here? can he not work at all?

(German never uses «do» as an auxiliary verb for any function; Dutch uses «do» as an auxiliary, but only in colloquial speech)

Modal verbs are called defective verbs because of their incomplete conjugation: they have a narrower range of functions than ordinary verbs.

In linguistics, modals are expressions associated with notions of possibility and necessity. Modals have a wide variety of interpretations which depend not only upon the particular modal used, but also upon where the modal occurs in a sentence, the meaning of the sentence independent of the modal, the conversational context, and a variety of other factors. For example, the interpretation of an English sentence containing the modal 'must' can be that of a statement of inference or knowledge (roughly, epistemic) or a statement of how something ought to be (roughly, deontic). The following pair of examples illustrates the interpretative difference:

Example 1: John didn’t show up for work. He must be sick.

Translation 1: Джон не пришел на работу, должно быть он болен.

Example 2: John didn’t show up for work. He must be fired.

Translation 2: Джон не пришел на работу, он может быть уволен.

The use of 'must' in (1) is interpreted as indicating a statement of reasoned conclusion: the speaker concludes John is sick, because otherwise John would have shown up for work. In contrast, in (2), 'must' is interpreted as a statement of how something ought to be: the speaker is saying that, because John didn’t show up for work, John ought to be fired.

The use of a modal, particularly not in cases like example (3) below, contrasts subtly with using a modal, as illustrated below:

Example 3: John must not be sick.

Translation 3: Джон должно быть не болен.

Example 4: John is not sick.

Translation 4: Джон не болен.

The use of the modal in (3) is interpreted as indicating that some process of reasoning was used to arrive at the conclusion that John is sick. The lack of the modal in (4) tends to preclude such an interpretation, and is generally considered to be a statement of fact (i.e., the speaker knows that John is sick). In other words, a speaker would typically not say (3) if the speaker knows that (4) is true.

Modality is expressed in different ways by different languages. Modality can be expressed via grammaticized elements such as auxiliary verbs or verb endings, via indirect means such as a prepositional phrase or a clause, or in other ways, such as via adverbs. For example, in English, the two sentences below have roughly the same meaning, but express the meaning in two different forms:

Example 5: It is possible that the Moon is made of cheese.

Translation 5: Возможно, что Луна сделана из сыра.

Example 6: The Moon might be made of cheese.

Translation 6: Луна могла бы быть сделана из сыра.

Subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, differences in interpretation occur depending on the way modality is expressed. Certain forms of expression may highlight certain aspects of modal meaning. Many languages will mark some modalities with particular word endings, etc., but will leave other means for marking other modalities (e.g. phrases).

Traditionally, studies of modality distinguish between:

(a) sentence modality, which deals with sentence types, such as declarative (a statement), imperative (a command), interrogative (a question), optative (a wish), exclamatory (an exclamation), etc., and

(b) verbal modality, which deals with the modal verbs and the mood of verbs.

In the English language, a modal verb is an auxiliary verb that can be used to change the grammatical mood of a sentence. The key way to identify a modal verb is by its defectiveness (they have neither participles nor infinitives).

The modal verbs in English are as follows, paired as present and preterite forms:

shall and should

will and would

may and might

can and could

mote (Archaic) and must

The following are not modal verbs but may be used for a similar purpose:

ought to and had better

used to

dare and need


going to

have to

Although historically referring to past time, the preferit forms have come to be used in many cases with no such meaning.


If a verb is preceded by multiple auxiliary verbs including a modal, as in «it could have been eaten,» the modal will always appear before the other auxiliary verbs. A verb or auxiliary verb following a modal always appears in its basic form (for example, «could have gone» instead of «could had gone»).

Past time use of preterite forms.

Preterite forms may be used when referring to situations seen from the perspective of an earlier time. For example, would is originally the past tense of will, and it can still be used in that sense. The statement «People think that we will all be driving hovercars by the year 2000», in the context of the 1960s, can be represented in the present by replacing the verbs in italics by the appropriate preterite forms: «In the 1960s, people thought we would all be driving hovercars by the year 2000.» Likewise, «I can do that» may become «I could do that when I was younger, but not anymore. «


The preterite forms can also be used in the apodosis in the conditional mood, such as in counterfactual conditionals: «If they wanted to do it, they would have done it by now.» «If you bought a bus pass, you could catch as many buses as you liked without worrying about the cost of the fares.» «If he were more polite, he might be better liked. «

There is not always an explicit protasis («if» clause) in this use: «Someone who likes red and hates yellow would probably prefer strawberries to bananas» means the same as «If someone who liked red and hated yellow were offered a choice of fruit, he or she would probably prefer strawberries to bananas.» «I could help you with your work» gives a more tentative sense of ability to help than, say, «I can help you with your work» would. The implied protasis could, depending on the context, be along the lines of «If I wanted to».

Shall and will

See also: Shall and will

Shall is used in many of the same senses as will, though not all dialects use shall productively, and those that use both shall and will generally draw a distinction (though different dialects tend to draw different distinctions). In standard, perhaps old-fashioned English, shall in the first person, singular or plural, indicates mere futurity, but in other persons shows an order, command or prophecy: «Cinderella, you shall go to the ball!» It is, therefore, impossible to make shall questions in these persons. Shall we? makes sense, shall you? does not.

Shall derives from a main verb meaning to owe, and in dialects that use both shall and will, it is often used in instances where an obligation, rather than an intention, is expressed.

Shall is also used in legal and engineering language to write firm laws and specifications as in these examples: «Those convicted of violating this law shall be imprisoned for a term of not less than three years nor more than seven years,» and «The electronics assembly shall be able to operate within its specifications over a temperature range of 0 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius. «


Should is commonly used, even in dialects where shall is not. The negation is «should not» (or the contraction «shouldn't»).

Should can describe an ideal behaviour or occurrence and imparts a normative meaning to the sentence; for example, «You should never lie» means roughly, «If you always behaved perfectly, you would never lie»; and «If this works, you should not feel a thing» means roughly, «I hope this will work. If it does, you will not feel a thing.» In dialects that use shall commonly, however, this restriction does not apply; for example, a speaker of such a dialect might say, «If I failed that test, I think I should cry,» meaning the same thing as, «If I failed that test, I think I would cry. «

In some dialects, it is common to form the subjunctive mood by using should: «It is important that the law should be passed» (where other dialects would say, «It is important that the law be passed») or «If it should happen, we are prepared for it» (or «Should it happen, we are prepared for it»; where early Modern English would say, «If it happen, we are prepared for it,» and many dialects of today would say, «If it happens, we are prepared for it»).


The contracted form of would is «'d». The negation is either «would not» or «wouldn't».

Would can be used in some forms that are viewed as more formal or polite. For example, «I would like a glass of water» compared with «I want a glass of water»; and «Would you get me a glass of water?» compared with the bare «Get me a glass of water. «

«Would» can also be used for the imperfect tense. In the sentence «Back then, I would eat early and would walk to school…» «would» signifies not the conditional mood, but rather, repeated past actions of imperfect tense in English, and one must use care when translating to other languages.

May and might

May and might do not have common negative contractions (equivalents to shan’t, won’t, can’t, couldn’t etc), although mightn’t can occur in asking questions. («Mightn't I come in if I took my muddy boots off?» as a reply to «Don't come in here! You’ll get the floor dirty!»)

Both forms can be used to express a present time possibility or uncertainty («That may be. «). Might and could can also be used in this sense with no past time meaning. Might and may would carry the same meaning in «John is not in the office today, and he could be sick. «

May is also used to express irrelevance in spite of certain or likely truth: «He may be taller than I am, but he is certainly not stronger» may mean roughly, «While it is true that he is taller than I am, that does not make a difference, as he is certainly not stronger.» (However, it may also mean, «I am not sure whether he is taller than I am, but I am sure that he is not stronger. «) This is the meaning in the phrase «Be that as it may.» Might can be used in this sense as well.

Might can be used in the first person to express that future actions are being considered. «I might go to the mall later» means that the speaker is thinking about going to the mall.

May or might can be used in a question to ask for permission. One who is saying «May I use your phone?» is asking for permission to use the phone of the person being spoken to. 'Can' or 'could' can be used instead, although formal American English prefers 'may'. In both cases the preterite form is viewed as more hesitant or polite.

Can and could

The negation of can is the single word «cannot», occasionally written as two words «can not» or the contraction «can't». The negation of could is «could not», or «couldn't».

Can is used to express ability. «I can speak English» means «I am able to speak English», or «I know how to speak English».

It is also used to express that some state of affairs is possible, without referring to the ability of a person to do something: «There can be a very strong rivalry between siblings» can have the same meaning as «There is sometimes a very strong rivalry between siblings».

Cannot and can’t can be used to express beliefs about situations: «He cannot have left already; why would he want to get there so early?» expresses with less certainty the same proposition as «He has not left already» does.

Both can and could can be used to make requests: «Can you pass me the cheese?» means «Please pass me the cheese». Could can be used in the same way, and might be considered more polite.

Double modal

In standard English usage, it is rare to use more than one modal verb consecutively, with a few exceptions such as might have to or may have used to. A greater variety of double modals appears colloquially in some regional or archaic dialects. In Southern American English, for example, phrases such as might could or ought to should are sometimes used in conversation. The double modal may sometimes be redundant, as in «I ought to should do something about it», where ought to and should are synonymous and either one could be removed from the sentence. In other double modals, the two modal verbs convey different meanings, such as «I might could do something about it tomorrow», where might indicates the possibility of doing something and could indicates the ability to do it.

Double modals also occur in the closely related Germanic language Scots.

An example of the double modal used to could can be heard in country singer Bill Carlisle’s 1951 song «Too Old to Cut the Mustard»:

I used to could jump just like a deer,

But now I need a new landing gear.

I used to could jump a picket fence,

But now I’m lucky if I jump an inch.

These kinds of double modal phrases are generally not regarded as correct grammar, although other double modals may be used instead. «I might could do something about it» is more often expressed as «I might be able to do something about it», which is considered more grammatical. Similarly used to could is usually expressed as used to be able to. Double modals can also be avoided by replacing one of the modal verbs with an appropriate adverb, such as using probably could or might possibly in place of might could.

1.3 Main Types of Modal Verbs in the English Language

All modal verbs are grouped according to the concept of their meaning: possibility, obligation, necessity, probability, prohibition, permission, advice, and suggestions. But we should remember that sometimes one modal verb can express different concepts.

Now let us consider modal verbs of permission and possibility. They are can and may.

Modal verb can

The modal verb can has the following forms: can — the present tense and could — the past tense.

The form could is used in two ways:

In past-time contexts as a form of the Indicative Mood.

Example 1: He could speak English when he was a child

Translation 1: Он мог говорить на Английском, когда был ребенком.

In present-time contexts to express unreality, or as a milder and more polite form of can, or as a form implying more uncertainty than can.

Example 2: He could speak English if necessary. Could I help you? Could it be true?

Translation 2: Он мог бы говорить на Английском в случае необходимости. Мог бы я Вам чем-нибудь помочь? Это могло быть правдой?

Can has the following meanings:

1) Possibility.

a) Possibility due to circumstances:

Example 1: Anybody can make a mistake.

Translation 1: Ошибаться может каждый.

Example 2: You can hardly blame him for that.

Translation 2: Вряд ли можно его за это винить.

b) Possibility due to the existing rules of laws:

Example: In old days a man could be sentenced to death for a small crime.

Translation: В старые времена можно было приговорить человека к смерти за небольшое преступление.

c) Possibility of the idea (the so-called «theoretical» possibility):

Example 1: The railways can be improved.

Translation 1: Железные дороги могут быть усовершенствованы.

(It is possible for the railways to be improved, as they are not yet


In general statements of possibility can has roughly the same meaning as «sometimes».

Example: The sea can be rough. = The sea is sometimes rough.

Translation: Море иногда бывает бурным.

Can is generally used in questions about possibility and in statements about impossibility.

Example 1: Can this be true? (Is it possible that this is true?)

Translation 1: Неужели это правда?

Example 2: This can’t be true. (It is impossible that this is true.)

Translation 2: Это не может быть правдой

2) Permission.

Example 1: Can we go home, Miss?

Translation 1: Можно идти домой, мисс?

Example 2: Не can go now.

Translation 2: Теперь он может идти.

Example 3: The teacher said we could go home.

Translation 4: Учитель разрешил нам идти домой.

But the modal verb can express not only possibility and permission. Sometimes it can express:

1) Request (Can I have some water?),

2) Surprise (Can it be so late as all that?),

3) Reproach (You could at least have met me at the station, couldn’t you?),

4) Purpose (I wrote down the telephone number so that I could remember it. ),

5) Improbability, incredulity (He can’t have seen it),

6) Prohibition (You can’t cross the street here. )

Note some set expressions with the modal verb can:

Cannot/can't help doing smth.  — He могу не делать что-то

Example 1: When I saw him I couldn’t help laughing.

Translation 1: Когда я увидел его, я не мог не засмеяться.

Cannot/can't but do smth. — не могу не …

Example 2: I cannot but suggest…

Translation 2: Я не могу не предложить …

We cannot but hope he is right. — Нам остается только надеяться, что… (не можем не надеяться…)

Modal verb May

The modal verb may has the following forms: may — the Present tense (e.g. it may be true) and might — the Past tense. The form might is used in two ways:

1) In past-time contexts, mainly in reported speech in accordance with the rules of the sequence of tenses.

Example: He told me that it might be true

Translation: Он сказал мне, что это могло бы быть правильно.

2) In present-time contexts as a milder and more polite form of may, or as a form implying more uncertainty than may.

Example: Might I come and see you? It might be true.

Translation: Я мог бы прийти навестить Вас? Это могло бы быть правильно.

May has the following meanings:


a) In this usage it expresses the meaning to have permission to, to be allowed to, to be permitted to.

Example 1: You may go now (you are allowed to go).

Translation 1: Вы можете идти сейчас (Вас разрешают идти).

Example 2: May we leave this with you? (Are we allowed to??? Is it all right if we leave it here?)

Translation 2: Мы можем оставить это с тобой? (Нам разрешают??? Действительно ли правильно, если мы оставим это здесь?)

b) In polite requests for permission might is used.

Example 1: Might I use your telephone, please?

Translation 1: Мог бы я использовать Ваш телефон, пожалуйтса?

Example 2: I wonder if I might borrow your book.

Translation 2: Я удивлюсь, если я смогу взять твою книгу.

Can is now more common than may or might to express informally the idea of permission, but may is often used when talking of ourselves.

May in this meaning is found in affirmative sentences, in interrogative sentences, which usually express a request, and in negative sentences where it denotes prohibition. But in negative sentences it is not common as prohibition is generally expressed by other modal verbs (see can and must). [1; 119]

Example: You may smoke in here. May I smoke in here? You may not smoke in here.

Translation: Ты можешь курить здесь. Могу ли я курить здесь? Ты не можешь курить здесь.

2) Possibility of the fact (the so-called «factual possibility»). This meaning occurs only in affirmative sentences.

Example 1: You may find all the books you want in the National Library.

Translation 1: Вы можете найти все книги, которые Вы хотите в Национальной Библиотеке.

The above sentence could suggest that there are definite plans for improvement.

May expressing possibility is avoided in questions and in negative sentences, instead can is used.

The form might is used in past-time contexts in accordance with the rules of the sequence of the tenses.

Example 2: He said the might order a taxi by telephone. [5; 56]

Translation 2: Он сказал, что можно заказать такси по телефону

Might followed by the Perfect Infinitive indicates that the action was not carried out owning to certain circumstances (expressed in the sentence or implied).

Example 3: You are so careless. You might have broken the cup.

Translation 3: Будь осторожней. Ты чуть было не разбил чашку.

But the modal verb МAY expresses not only possibility and permission. Sometimes it can express:

Disapproval or reproach (You might carry the parcel for me. You might have helped me.)

Supposition (He may come a little later. He might come a little later)

3) Prohibition -only with the negative form of the modal verb. (You may not go swimming.)

4) Reproach (You might at least offer to help)

5) Purpose (Sit here so that I may see your face more clearly)

Here are some expressions with the modal verb may/might:

I may/might as well + infinitive -- is a very mild and unemphatic way of expressing an intention.

I may as well take you with me.

It can be used with other persons to suggest or recommend an action.

You may as well give him the letter.

Might just as well means «it would be equally good to» and is used to suggest alternative actions. Though the meaning is basically the same as in three previous sentences, «just» makes the sentence more emphatic. [1; 120]

Modal verb should

Historically should was the past form of shall and both the forms expressed obligation. But in present-day English they have developed different meanings and are treated as two different verbs In modern English the modal verb should is used with reference to the present or future. It remains unchanged in reported speech.

Should has the following meanings:

1. Advice. This meaning is more common with ought to than with should.

Example 1: You should stay in bed.

Translation 1: Вам нужно (следует) лежать в постели.

Example 2: I think you should read this book.

Translation 2: Думаю, что тебе следует (стоит) прочесть эту книгу.

2. Probability, something naturally expected (only with reference to the present or future).

Example 3: The guests shouldn’t come for another hour.

Translation 3: Гости вряд ли придут раньше, чем через час.

When combined with the perfect infinitive should denotes criticism, faultfinding; the statement indicates that something desirable has not been done.

Example 4: Your shoes are wet. You should have stayed at home.

Translation 4: Ваши ботинки влажные. Вы должны были остаться дома.

A negative statement indicates that something wrong has been done.

Example 5: You shouldn’t have done that. It was stupid.

Translation 5: Вам не следовало это делать. Это глупо.

Example 6: They should never have married.

Translation 6: Им вообще не следовало жениться. [1; 126]


2.1 The Meaning of the Modal Verbs in Translation

It has to be pointed that the modal verbs have numerous subtleties in what they express in different contexts. They have, on one hand, shifted semantically throughout the history of the English language. On the other hand, different speakers of the language differ somewhat in which modal verbs they prefer for what meanings.

According to the function, the meanings of the modal verbs are often differentiated into two classes: epistemic modality and denotic modality. The former reflects various judgments of factuality and expresses the possibility, probability or impossibility of a particular proposition. The latter communicates judgments of moral and legal obligation, responsibility and permission. Examples of denotic are shown in the following sentences:

Example 1: You should water the flowers in the back garden. (obligation)

Translation 1: Тебе следует полить цветы в саду за домом.

Example 2: You can water the flowers in the back garden. (permission)

Translation 2: Ты можешь полить цветы в саду за домом.

Example 3: You could water the flowers in the back garden. (permission)

Translation 3: Ты мог полить цветы в саду за домом.

Denotic modals, like epistemic modals, signal a speaker’s judgments but while with epistemic modals, the judgment is about the way the real world is, with denotic modality, it is about how people should act or behave in the world. That is to say, the use of denotic is tied in with all sorts of social knowledge: the speaker’s belief systems about morality and legality, and his or her estimations of power and authority. But it is possible to view both types of meaning as a single scale, with possibility (for instance, «can») at one end and necessity (for instance, «must») at the other, some semanticists argue that modality, both epistemic and denotic, allows speakers to compare the real world hypothetical situations and express different strengths of prediction of their match with the real world. Therefore in saying:

Example 4: It might be snowing in New York.

Translation 4: В Нью — Юрке должен был идти снег.

The speaker is setting up a hypothetical situation (snow in New York) and predicting a reasonable match withreality. And in saying:

Example 5: It must be snowing in New York.

Translation 5: Снег должно быть шел в Нью — Юрке.

The speaker is proposing a very strong match between his or her prediction and reality. Denotic modality is approached in the same way. If the speaker says:

Example 6: You should leave immediately.

Translation 6: Вам следует немедленно уехать.

He or she is proposing a match between an ideal moral or legal situation and the real world of behavior. And when the speaker says:

Example 7: You must leave immediately.

Translation 7: Ты должен немедленно уехать.

He or she is proposing a more strong match between the ideal situation and the real situation. Such an approach lays some emphasis on the sentence-level relation between modality and conditional, which is exemplified as follows:

Example 8: I would go to American if you agree.

Translation 8: Я вероятно поехал бы в Америку, если Вы согласитесь.

Example 9: I would refuse her if I were you.

Translation 9: Я вероятно бы отказался от нее на Вашем месте.

Example 10: She’s far too considerate, if I may say so.

Translation 10: Она слишком внимательна, если я могу сказать так.

Example 11: You can discuss the matter with him now, if necessary.

Translation 11: Вы можете обсудить вопрос с ним сейчас, в случае необходимости.

It is obviously that modal verbs represent the speaker’s attitude in sentence or in text, especially when we take on translating or interpreting job. Different types of modal verbs express different commands: Probability, usuality, obligation and inclination, and we pay more attention to the three value modulation: High, media and low, which also are so important that they can help us to predicate the meaning or attitude of the speakers or writers. This paper makes a comparative study of modal verbs in translation. It focuses on various meaning or characteristics of modal verbs in the light of sorting, analyzing and citing. Teaching and learning English Modal Verbs is one of the most complicated and difficult parts in language teaching. We should make a tentative study of the necessity of applying pragmatic analysis in translation teaching by the survey on the understanding and application of English modal verb among the English majors.

2.2 Differences and Peculiarities of the Usage of Modal Verbs in Newspapers and faction

We find the following modal verbs in English: can, may, should, could, would and might. Besides, to have and to be in some of their uses are also classed among modal verbs. A modal verb in combination with the infinitive forms a modal compound predicate.

Modal verbs are defective verbs since they lack many forms characteristic of regular verbs: they have no -s in the third person singular in the present tense and no verbal, so they have no analytical forms; some of them lack the form of the past tense.

Modal verbs have the following peculiarities:

their interrogative and negative forms are built up without the auxiliary do.

Most of the verbs have more than one meaning. Each of their meanings is characterized by a specific usage.

Some of the meanings may be found in all kinds of sentences; others occur only in affirmative of interrogative or negative sentences;

Different meanings may be associated with different forms of the infinitive — simple and perfect (both in the active and passive forms), continuous and perfect continuous;

If the modal verbs have more than one form (can — could, may — might, will — would), their different meanings are not necessarily found in all those forms.

The use of modal verbs is in most cases independent of the structure of the sentence: the use of this of that modal verb is determined by the attitude of the speaker towards the facts contained in the sentence. In this case we may speak of the free or independent use of modal verbs.

But sometimes the use of certain modal verbs depends on the structure of the sentence, mainly on the type of the subordinate clause, and occasionally also on the lexical character of the predicate verb in the principal clause. This may be called the structurally dependent use of modal verbs.

When the use of modal verbs is structurally dependent, their meaning is sometimes weakened; in fact, it may be quite vague. This may be accounted for by the fact that these verbs become rather part of the structure than bearers of individual meaning.

It is important to take into account one more feature peculiar to modal verbs. They all show that a certain action is represented as necessary, possible, desirable, doubtful, etc. from the point of view of the speaker. Consequently, modal verbs are generally used in conversation. In past-time contexts they may be found only in reported speech or thought, Thus You should have done it before, or He might be wrong, or It must be true cannot be possibly found in narration unless they are used after He thought that … He said that … He knew that …, etc.

The only exceptions are the past tense forms could, would, had, was and might which may be used only in conversation but also in narration.

Example 1: Walker was illiterate and could not sign his name. When I looked at her I saw tears in her eyes. So I had to tell her the truth.

(B.J. Chute.) [p. 56]

Translation 1: Волкер был неграмотным и не мог написать его имя. Когда я смотрел на нее, я видел слезы в ее глазах. Так что я должен был сказать ей правду.

We can’t but mention that Modal Verbs are of common usage in literature — both American and English. In this work several examples taken from the works of famous American and English writers of the 18−19th centuries, such as I. Asimov, O. Henry, S. Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A. Christie, O. Wilde, M. Spark and others, can vividly show you their usage and importance in speech. We guess it’ll be necessary to provide you with some examples on their usage from different newspapers and analyze them thoroughly.


The modal verb can has the following forms: can — the present tense (e.g. He can speak English) and could — the past tense. The form could is used in two ways: a) in past-time contexts as a form of the Indicative Mood (e.g. He could speak English when he was a child), b) in present-time contexts to express unreality, or as a milder and more polite form of can, or as a form implying more uncertainty than can (e.g. He could speak English if necessary. Could I help you? Could it be true?). Compare with the Russian мог бы: Он мог бы сделать это, если бы у него было время (unreality). Не мог бы я Вам помочь? (politeness). Неужели он мог бы так сказать? (uncertainty).

Can has the following meanings:

ability, capability,

Example 1: I can imagine how angry he is.

Translation 1: Я могу представить, насколько сердитый он.

Example 2: We can represent a figure of a three-dimensional solid.

Translation 2: Мы можем представить число трехмерного тела.

This meaning may also be expressed by to be able. The phrase can be used in all tense-forms if necessary.

In the meaning of ability and capability can occurs in all kinds of sentences.

Example 3: Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough, and men always have done so. You can move about in all directions of Space, but you cannot move about in Time. (Herbert G. Wells.)[p. 95]

Translation 3: В право и в лево мы можем пойти, назад и вперед достаточно свободно, и люди всегда делали так. Вы можете переместиться во всех направлениях, но Вы не можете переместиться вовремени.

In this case can is followed by the simple infinitive and reference is made to the present. But depending on the context it may also refer to the future.

Example 4: He can go up against gravitation in a balloon, and why should he not hope that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way? (Herbert G. Wells.) [p. 82]

Translation 4: Он может подняться против силы тяжести в мяче, и почему он не должен надеяться, что в конечном счете он может быть в состоянии остановить или ускорить его фланирование Измерения времени, или даже изменить мнение и путешествовать по другому пути?

However, if the time reference is not clear from the context or if it is necessary to stress that the action refers to the future, shall/will be able is used.

Example 5: He will be able to write to us from Portugal. I shall be able to earn by own living soon. (Arthur Conan Doyle.) [p. 16]

Translation 5: Он намеревается написать нам из Португалии. Я обязан заработать на собственное проживание скоро.

The form could may be used in past-time contexts and in this case it is followed by a simple infinitive. It is a form of the Indicative Mood here.

Example 6: A man could not cover himself with dust by rolling in a paradox, could he? But then where could it be? After what had happened I couldn’t trust him. (F. Scott Fitzgerald.) [p. 56]

Translation 6: Человек не мог покрыться пылью, парадокс, не так ли? Но тогда где это могло быть? После какого случилось, что я не мог доверять ему.

The form could may also be used in present-time context in combination with the simple infinitive to express unreality with reference to the present or future.

Example 7: I told myself that I could never stop, and with a gust of petulance I resolved to stop forthwith. (F. Scott Fitzgerald.) [p. 45]

Translation 7: Я сказал себе, что я никогда не смог бы прекратить, и с порывом раздражительности я решил остановиться немедленно.

As the form could may be used in two ways it is usually understood as expressing unreality with reference to the present or future unless there are indications of past time in the sentence or in the context. Thus the sentence She could paint landscapes will be understood as Она могла бы писать пейзажи.

If there is no indication of past time in the context but the speaker wishes to refer the action to the past, was/were able is used of could to avoid ambiguity.

Example 8: She was able to explain the mystery. In combination with the perfect infinitive could indicates that the action was not carried out in the past.(Herbert G. Wells.)[p. 85]

Translation 8: Она была в состоянии объяснить тайну. В комбинации с прекрасным инфинитивом который мог указывать, что движение не было выполнено в прошлом.

Example 9: She could have explained the mystery.

Translation 9: Она могла бы объяснить эту тайну; но не объяснила.

possibility due to circumstances.

Example 1: You can see the forest through the other window.

Translation 1: Вы можете увидеть лес через другое окно.

We can use either the Present Perfect of the Present Perfect Continuous in this sentence.

In this meaning can is found in all kinds of sentences. It is followed by the simple infinitive and it refers the action to the present of future.

Example 2: You can obtain a dog from the Dog’s Home. '

Translation 2: Вы можете получить собаку из дома Собаки

Can we use the indefinite article with this noun? We can’t use the indefinite article with this noun.

In past-time contexts the form could is used. It is followed by the simple infinitive in this case.

Example 3: You could see the forest through the other window before the new block of houses was erected.

Translation 3: Вы бы могли увидеть лес через другое окно прежде, чем новый квартал был построен.

The form could in combination with the simple infinitive may also express unreality with reference to the present of future.

Example 4: You could see the houses from here if it were not so dark.

Translation 4: Вы могли видеть здания отсюда, если бы это не было настолько темно.

In combination with the perfect infinitive, could indicate that the action was not carried out in the past.

Example 5: You could have seen the house from there if it had not been so dark.

Translation 5: Вы, возможно бы, увидели дом оттуда, если бы не было настолько темно.

3) Permission

Example 1: You can take my umbrella.

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