The modal verb "need"

JGrishina

New Member
Russian
Hello! I need some help with the modal "need", sorry for the tautology.
Most Grammar books say it doesn't have the past form, that is you can't say "needed". But it can be used as Participle II in cases when something "is needed".
It is also said that it can't be used with the auxiliaries "do/did" or the particle "to".
Does this mean that I shouldn't believe my eyes when I come across sentences like "I need to do it", "I don't need to do it", and "I needed to do it."?
Thanks in advance!
 
  • JamesM

    Senior Member
    These sound like strange grammar books. "I need to do it", "I don't need to do it" and "I needed to do it" are all perfectly acceptable. You can even have constructions like "I needed to have done it", "I will need to do it", "I need to be doing it" and "I will need to have done it".

    Can you give us the name of any of these grammar books?

    Perhaps it has to do with their definition of a modal verb. I don't think "need" follows the same pattern as "should", for example.

    By far the most common use of "need" is with "to" following it, in my experience.

    Are you thinking of "I need do it", similar to the pattern of "I should do it"? I don't think it's common in American English to use "need" in this way. It might take a British English speaker to give you a proper answer to the question.
     
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    Yondlivend

    Senior Member
    American English
    I'm sure there were threads on this before, but there are two main ways of using "need." With one usage, "need" does not take -s in the third person singular and behaves similarly to verbs such as "should." This is the "verbal auxiliary" use (that's the term Merriam-Webster uses). An example sentence:

    He need not wait for me.


    You could use "should" in place of "need" here and still have a grammatical sentence (He should not wait for me). When used like this, it cannot be used with "do/did" or "to" (for example, we'd never say "to should" :cross: or "I did should" :cross:) The other usage, where "need" does take an -s in third person singular, has different properties. Others might be able to describe this better. But if you use "need" as any other verb (that isn't an auxiliary verb), then the sentence would be:

    He doesn't need to wait for me.


    "Should" could not be used in place of "need" here (He doesn't should wait for me :cross: is ungrammatical.)
     

    JGrishina

    New Member
    Russian
    "Can you give us the name of any of these grammar books?"
    Unfortunately the only Oxford grammar book I have doesn't say anything about "need", so I have to use books published in Russia. And all of them say "I need do something" and "I needn't do something". No particles, no auxiliaries, no future or past forms, just like the pattern of "should" and "must".
    So, thank you! That's exactly what I thought!
     

    JGrishina

    New Member
    Russian
    I can't see the difference in meaning between these two sentences: He need not wait for me. He doesn't need to wait for me.​ Should there be one?
     

    Yondlivend

    Senior Member
    American English
    No, there isn't any difference as far as I'm concerned. The second is far more common though, the first sounds rather formal.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    "Can you give us the name of any of these grammar books?"
    Unfortunately the only Oxford grammar book I have doesn't say anything about "need", so I have to use books published in Russia. And all of them say "I need do something" and "I needn't do something". No particles, no auxiliaries, no future or past forms, just like the pattern of "should" and "must".
    So, thank you! That's exactly what I thought!

    I think this is a very rare form in American English, but I do see how it matches other modal verbs. I suppose the answer for American English is that we rarely use "need" as a modal verb in that sense.
     

    JGrishina

    New Member
    Russian
    Then what's the difference between "need" as a modal verb and as a simple verb? I see there may be some difference in sentence structure, but what about difference in meaning? How can one distinguish between them?
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Your grammar book is wrong about to, sorry.

    Need with a noun object: I need water for my roses. You need time to think about that. We all need friends.

    Need with a verb object, positive sentences: You need to ask again. They need to be careful. (Meaning sometimes very close to should.)

    Need with a verb object, negative sentences: You do not/don't need to ask again. They do not/don't need to be careful.
    Need as a modal, negative sentences, colloquial option: You needn't ask again. (Meaning sometimes very close to mustn't.)

    Need with a verb object, questions: Do you need to ask? Need you ask? (Also Do you need ask? though this is rarer)

    How to distinguish between them? Why do you need to? Just keep to the above usage.

    _______________________________________

    Rewritten to clarify my point; sorry if I muddied the waters.
     
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    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I thought modals were followed by the bare infinitive. Certainly that's true of "can" and "may". To me, therefore, modal "need" means sentences such as "You needn't expect any help from me". "Need" followed by "to" counts as an ordinary verb in my book.
     

    Moon Palace

    Senior Member
    French
    My Cambridge grammar of English says that need is a semi-modal, and that as a consequence it behaves like modals on many occasions. Yet it adds that it is used as a modal essentially in negative sentences (eg she needn't take the exam if she doesn't want to / He need not wear a suit).
    For assertions, the CEG adds that this use is rarer and associated with formal styles and contexts, and that there is almost always some element of negation in the clause, even if the verb phrase is affirmative:
    No one else need see what he was doing either / if we feel wisdom itself is lost, we need only enter a library.
    As regards interrogatives with semi-modal need, they are very rare and are associated with formal styles and contexts too.
     

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    this use is rarer and associated with formal styles and contexts.
    Presumably, "this use" means "use as a modal" and presumably "rarer" means "rarer than the use of 'need' as an ordinary verb". I think it is rarer in that sense, but I don't see anything formal about the style or the context of "I needn't have bought that milk", a sentence that I could happily produce.
     

    JGrishina

    New Member
    Russian
    Thank you!
    I was looking for previous threads but put only "need" into the search line, and got hundreds of threads like "Is any article needed here?" Next time I'll be more specific, sorry. And yes, these threads are really informative, thank you.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Presumably, "this use" means "use as a modal" and presumably "rarer" means "rarer than the use of 'need' as an ordinary verb". I think it is rarer in that sense, but I don't see anything formal about the style or the context of "I needn't have bought that milk", a sentence that I could happily produce.

    Could you use it in the positive? "I need have bought that milk before I left", or something similar? I have heard British English speakers use it in the negative, but I've always wondered if it was also used in the positive.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    If I heard that phrase, I'd imagine that I'd misheard (or the speaker had mispronounced) "I needn't..."

    (Like American speakers who say "I kaen" and we Brits hardly know whether they mean "I can" or "I can't".)
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    No, James, *"I need have bought that milk before I left" doesn't work. It isn't used.

    Not being familiar with "need / needn't" I might have created a bad example. Can you give an example where it is used in the positive? It is still used in the U.S. in the phrase "You need only X" (or, in very flowery language, "You need but X"), but those are the only examples I can think of. Is there a case where it is used in the positive in the form "I/you/she/they need X", where X is another verb?
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    As far as I know, need is not used as a modal in completely positive contexts, but modal need does not require the use of a negative adverb. For example, the following are valid uses:

    Need I wash these in cold water?
    Seldom need we say that explicitly.
    We need express few such ideas explicitly.
    I doubt we need say that explicitly in this case.

    Modal need does not mean quite the same thing as need with to+infinitive. It means something more like "be required to" than like "have a need to". "Need not" usually means something like "don't have to", for example "Irishmen need not apply" means it would be no use to them for Irishmen to apply, but it can, rarely, also mean "must not" or "should not".
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I can imagine reading the last three in print. I cannot imagine hearing anyone around me saying the first one. :) The last three are understandable but not something I would expect to hear in anything other than an upper-level academic (or perhaps legal) environment.
     

    Yondlivend

    Senior Member
    American English
    Just out of curiosity, I searched for the phrases "I need go" and "I need to go" on Google Ngram Viewer, plotting them on the same graph, and put one for American and one for British English. It seems that need as a modal in sentences such as these has been more common in British English than in American English for some time now, though just because something is used frequently in writing doesn't mean it's used frequently in speech. It appears to be the case that it's also used more frequently in BE speech than AE speech.

    I use need as a modal sometimes, but in many cases it sounds formal. I do remember hearing it used in the song "Angel Eyes," and it sounded perfectly natural to me:
    Angel eyes that old devil sent
    They glow unbearably bright
    Need I say that my love's misspent?
    Misspent with Angel Eyes tonight.
     
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