Why no -s in third personal singular of modals in English?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by adorobrasil, Jul 18, 2013.

  1. adorobrasil Senior Member

    American English-Midwest
    Does anyone know the historical development of the modals well enough to explain why modals such as 'can' or 'might' don't have the -s in the third person singular? I teach ESL and a student asked me why they're different. I've poked around a bit on the net, but haven't found much. I know a little about the history of English, but I've never run across the answer to this,

  2. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Might is not a present tense but a preterite and past subjunctive form. I guess you mean may which is the present indicative form. Can, may, shall, will, etc. belong to a group of verb called present-preterite verbs. Established linguistic theory is that they derived their present tense forms from the Proto-Indo-European stative/perfect, the verb form that developed into the Germanic preterite. These PIE verbs, by their semantic nature, presumably lacked some or all eventive verb forms, including the one from which the Germanic present tense is derived. Or, saying it in a simpler way, he can is etymologically past tense and therefore doesn't have an -s. Present-preterite verbs exist in all Germanic languages and are not a peculiarity of English.

    Preterite and past subjunctive forms of present-preterite verbs (he could, he might, he should) were added later in Proto-Germanic. These verbs also belong to class of Germanic weak verbs that derived their preterite forms by adding a preterite form of the verb *doanaN (=to do) to the verb stem that is employed for the present tense. So, weak forms like he learned, he walked or he might originally meant he learn-did, he walk-did, he may-did.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2013

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