he knew that he need only...

Sidjanga

Senior Member
German;southern tendencies
Hi all,

This is a sentence from Kamila Shamsie's book Burnt Shadows:

After just a few minutes in their company he knew that he need only reveal he was hiding from the Americans in order to make allies of them
.
("he" is Raza, one of the main characters, and "they" are a two or three Afghans he's just met)

What I don't understand is why it is simply that he need only reveal... (and not he needed or maybe he needs, even though it's all past tense, of course).

As far as I'm aware, he knew that is not a construction that would or could typically be followed by the subjunctive in English.

I asked a friend who teaches English about this and she also couldn't tell me why you can or have to say simply need here, but she said that you could insert a to before reveal and would then have to say needed:
that he needed only to reveal...

So is there a specific reason why you say need in that sentence and in comparable situations, or is this just some funny exception that simply has to be taken the way it is?
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Well, what requires explanation is the tense: present 'need only reveal' rather than past 'needed only reveal'. I'm not sure of that. I assume you know that 'need' can be used as either a modal verb or a lexical verb. As a modal, it takes no -s (he need not), morphological negation (he needn't), bare infinitive (he needn't reveal), and so on. As a lexical verb it behaves like any other: he doesn't need to reveal.

    However, modal 'need' still has tense, and in 'he knew that he need' it's present tense, not the plain form used in subjunctive clauses. So why isn't it 'needed', the expected tense in this situation? I can only say that :cross:'he knew that he needed only reveal' doesn't work, which I didn't know before, so evidently the modal sense is locked to the one tense (as it is with other modals: 'can', 'could', 'will', 'should' etc. being for most purposes functionally different verbs).

    So we can't make past tense forms of modal 'need', it would appear: :cross:needed he do it? :cross:he neededn't do it.

    To put it in the past you need to switch to lexical 'need': he knew that he needed only to reveal.

    By the way, it illustrates another interesting feature. Modal 'need' can't be used in positive statements :)cross:he need reveal), only in negatives, questions, and presumably hypotheticals (??I questioned whether he need reveal it; ??matters will be difficult if he need reveal it) - hmm, no, hypotheticals should work but don't. But it does seem to be acceptable under 'know'.
     

    Sidjanga

    Senior Member
    German;southern tendencies
    Thanks for your reply, entangledbank.
    Well, what requires explanation is the tense: present 'need only reveal' rather than past 'needed only reveal'. I'm not sure of that. I assume you know that 'need' can be used as either a modal verb or a lexical verb. As a modal, it takes no -s (he need not), morphological negation (he needn't), bare infinitive (he needn't reveal), and so on. As a lexical verb it behaves like any other: he doesn't need to reveal.
    Hm, interesting.
    I always thought the difference between the modal and the lexical usage of the verb need was basically this:

    Modal: You need not come. (need + second verb) / You don't need to come.(??)
    Lexial: We need more milk. (need + noun)

    But I might be wrong here.
    However, modal 'need' still has tense, and in 'he knew that he need' it's present tense, not the plain form used in subjunctive clauses. So why isn't it 'needed', the expected tense in this situation? I can only say that :cross:'he knew that he needed only reveal' doesn't work, which I didn't know before, so evidently the modal sense is locked to the one tense (as it is with other modals: 'can', 'could', 'will', 'should' etc. being for most purposes functionally different verbs).
    So would the same sentence similarly work with other modals?

    E.g.: He knew that he can only reveal certain details.
    So we can't make past tense forms of modal 'need', it would appear: :cross:needed he do it? :cross:he neededn't do it.

    To put it in the past you need to switch to lexical 'need': he knew that he needed only to reveal.

    By the way, it illustrates another interesting feature. Modal 'need' can't be used in positive statements :)cross:he need reveal),...
    ?
    But the sentence from the book is a positive statement, isn't it? ...that he need only reveal...

    And another question:
    Is there any difference in meaning or connotation between these two sentences, need with and without to?:

    - After just a few minutes in their company he knew that he need only reveal he was hiding from the Americans in order to make allies of them.

    - After just a few minutes in their company he knew that he needed only to reveal he was hiding from the Americans in order to make allies of them.
     
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