An Introduction to semi-modal verbs

Before we talk about what a semi-modal verb is, you should be familiar with the concept of a modal verb.

What is a semi-modal verb?

A semi-modal verb is similar to a modal verb. In fact the prefix semi– means “half” or “partially”. In this case a semi-modal verb is partially a modal verb and partially not. But what does that mean?

A modal verb has certain characteristics:

  1. they modify the meaning of other verbs but do not have their own meaning
  2. it is defective – they do not have a present participle (-ing) or past participle (sometimes -ed) form
  3. the verb that they modify follows the modal verb in the bare infinitive (unconjugated without the preposition ‘to’) form
  4. subject-verb inversion for questions and negatives (do not use the word ‘do’)

A semi-modal verb follows some but not all of these principles.

Some examples include (click the links to view more information on the individual semi-modal verbs):

So when do you use them?

Semi-modal verbs can be used where modal verbs are used to show modality. In simple terms modality shows what a someone believes, intends or wants. In fact there are often semi-modal verbs that are equivalent to modal verbs.

Additionally, there are certain situations where semi-modal verbs are used instead of modal verbs, such as the for an obligation in the past (for example, must doesn’t have a past tense, so we must use had to).

Here is some further reading that may be of interest:


Want to learn more about modal verbs? You can find a guide to all the modal verbs here: introduction to modal verbs. You can also learn more about other English language information on my Teaching English page.

Interested in seeing our social media? Follow us on Facebook for (almost) daily language posts, Instagram for travel photos and YouTube for travel- and language-related videos!

Leave a Reply