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How modal verbs and gerunds are used in sentence construction

By Alexander Chagema | Published Mon, December 25th 2017 at 00:00, Updated December 24th 2017 at 23:30 GMT +3

The buzz on social media after this year’s Kenya Certificate of Primary School Examination top scorer Goldalyne Kakuya was invited to address Masinde Muliro University graduands was one to behold.

It was a lively debate, at times insulting, but in all, there were a number of questions: what lessons, what advice can a primary school pupil give university graduates to prepare them for what lies ahead?

Should the university have invited her in the first place, and on what criteria? Was there a need for such advice anyway?

Must her parents allow her to be over-exposed, with the danger of hubris messing up her otherwise promising future? The operative words in the questions were: can, should, must, and need. They form the basis of our discussion today.

Every day, we come across common English words such as ‘need’, ‘can’, ‘may’, ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘would’ and their negative forms ‘can’t, needn’t’, ‘mustn’t', and ‘shouldn’t' in whatever we choose to read, whether books, magazines, periodicals, or newspapers.

Like with most English words and expressions, they have their own grouping and are called ‘modal verbs’.

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Modal verb types

Modal verbs are either single-word modals or phrasal modals. The single-word modals are listed above. Phrasal modals include expressions ‘be able to’, ‘had better’, ‘used to’, ‘have to’, ‘have got to’, ‘ought to’.

However, the phrasal verb ‘had better’ is not followed by the word ‘to’ - it remains in the simple form.

Modal verbs, in combination with other verbs, express several things, namely what one can do (ability), what is required of one (obligation), the chances of something happening (possibility) and so forth.

Ability is expressed by the word ‘can’, which is also used in making a request or asking for permission to do something. Modal verb ‘may’ refers to the possibility of something happening and also seeking permission.

Obligation is stressed by the word ‘must’, which also expresses a given belief, i.e. “I must go now, Alpha is waiting for me to take him to school’ and “the oldest member of Parliament in Kenya must be 76 years old.”

In order to give advice, we use the verb ‘should’, for example, “you should give up smoking; it is not good for your lungs”.

‘Would’, on the other hand, is used in making offers or requests and at times in sentences featuring the word ‘if', for example in conditional sentences: “if I were Uhuru, I would allow open dialogue with the opposition” or “if I were Raila, I would rethink the divisive secession and swearing-in ideas."

Constant form

Modal verbs neither change their forms nor have the infinitive and participle- past or present - like other verbs. For instance, ‘had’ retains the spelling whether in the past simple tense, present perfect tense, future tense, or the infinitive.

The following sentences demonstrate this: “Sorry, I could not make it on time, I had to drop my son at school” — (past simple tense).

“The Artur brothers had to leave at short notice after it became untenable for them to continue staying in Kenya” - (present perfect tense).

In addition, an infinitive is described as a verb form that acts as other parts of speech in a sentence. It is formed with the word ‘to’, for example: "I am going to buy books from the University Press bookshop", "I am finished with my preparations, I am going to work now."

Other things to note about the use of modal verbs is that the third person singular does not need the addition of letter 's' at the end. By inverting the order of words, modal verbs at times form a question. For example: "He can leave now." (statement), “Can he leave now?" (question).

From the earlier question, ‘Must her parents allow her to be over exposed, with the danger of hubris messing up her otherwise promising future?" let us move on to gerunds. Gerunds are words formed with verbs (action words) but act as nouns.

Gerunds, like past participles, are basically verbs that end with ‘ing’, for example, ‘messing’. Other examples include "I have been walking for the past two hours", "I have been dreaming of going to Mombasa on holiday for the better part of the year."

 Mr Chagema is a correspondent at the [email protected]