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Semantic Features of Marginal Modals “Ought to” and “Need” a Corpus Based Approach


This study describes the particular role of marginal modals “ought to” and “need” in the discourse of linguistic issues of present days. Focusing on the reality of the modern flow of grammatical feature in the English language the role of modals seems to be trite. In this respect English-speaking people are intended to feel no difference in the use of these two modal verbs. The current definition and implementation of the marginal modals and the situations in which it is better to use them, so that not to disturb the language corpora while teaching English, are emphasized in the study. As the Lingua Franca, English has different corpuses in its widespread reality. This is why the British English, as the main source for correlation of the mother language is under great attention in the study. According to Loureiro-Porto (2004) the syntactical and semantic significance of marginal modals in Present-day English (PDE) in periphrastic expressions is apparent in their reciprocal relation. The study seeks to evaluate the use of modals in terms of American and British corpus, written and spoken usage and other dimensions (corpus) of the language implementation.

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Thus the study researches the problem of marginal modals, first, touching upon the findings of previous studies. Second, the reliability of the approach in the study is evaluated with the current database and methodology. In this respect the enumeration and certain importance of the sources is corresponded in the paper with the modern stage of language development and its relation to other languages. The results and analysis of the study are incorporated in the third part of the paper with sufficient examples and additional aids which can put an observer in the picture of the discussion. Moreover, a proof of the study is imposed in the graph of conclusions and recommendations about the language systems and the place of English in its grammatical variability pointed out on the example of marginal modals.

Previous research

Previous studies in the same field correspond to the idea that in earlier times the use of “ought to” and “need” were rather patterned and used in more “received” variants of oral speech. Time and geographic span of the language comprises the wholeness of language systems in their particular necessity for making socio-linguistic approach more rational and concerned in terms of definite pragmatic and logical use of language units in higher subsystems. Loureiro-Porto (2004) admits that in the Lampeter Corpus and the Corpus of Early English Correspondence Sampler the use of modal verb “need” was frequently used in its relation to another verb “have”. In this case the combination of both verbs was a result of perpetual use of them in the oral and written domains of the English language. Here the meaning of a requirement with even more negative colouring was imposed in the use of “need”. Lee (1999) observes in her study the use of the modal verb “ought to” with glimpses at its relation and similarity to other modals. In this respect the frequency of this modal in variants of English language was dumped by the use of another modal “should”. Furthermore, there was a standpoint of mutual changeability and replacement of theses modals in, for example, American and Australian language corpora. Lee (1999, p. 135) notes the most disputed three themes concerned with the use of the modal verb “ought to”, namely:

  1. Are ought and should interchangeable?
  2. Can ought be followed by a bare infinitive (e.g. You ought not give him advice)?
  3. Can ought act as a lexical verb, with do (e.g. Do you ought to give him advice)?

Hogg et al. (2000) point out that in the historical cut of the English language the role of auxiliaries arose only in Early Modern English, and the use of allegedly called “marginal” modals, such as dare, need, ought to, and used to was frequent since this stage of the language development. In fact, the reasoning over this idea is quite similar to the objective that the fast growth of the scientific and technological progress made it significant to frame the attitudinal background of the relationships between people in domain of obligation and necessity. However, Lee (1999) provides a survey based on the Australian Corpus of English, the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus, and the Brown Corpus, in which the frequency and applicability of “ought to” is less particular to Australian English in contrast to British English and American English with the ratio of 51: 106: 70. This is why it is necessary to admit that the versatility of the English language in relation to its major corpuses is presupposed with the social as well as societal reality of countries where its (language) variants are observed.

Krug (2000) provides a survey on the auxiliary verbs in the English language in terms of corpus data and hypothesis highlighted in the flow of the study research. Grammaticalization is seen by the author, as the peculiar dimension, where the semantic and syntactic features of different verbs can be transformed with additional functional colouring and points on difference in written and spoken language. Thus, Krug (2000) provides the assertion that in present reality marginal modals (need, dare, ought to) have more common features with lexical verbs, such as “do” and directly with the infinitives using particle “to”. The scholar also relates achieved findings to the objective by Hogg et al (2000) that such drift to acquiring more lexical features by marginal modals is not accidental, because this process was first fixed in Early Modern English.

Huddleston & Pullum (2005) characterize verbs in their reference to auxiliary and lexical destination in the language system, and admit as well that marginal modals have common features of both dimensions of verbs. “Need” according to the observation of the authors has the infinitival complement, because this auxiliary is embodied in the language in terms of direct correspondence to infinitives (Huddleston & Pullum, 2005). Moreover, the use of “need” is implemented only in non-affirmative context with emphasis on negative and interrogative constructions (Huddleston & Pullum, 2005). This is why the previous studies showed the tendency of marginal modal “need” that is examined in its semantic featuring implied in domains of necessity and obligation.

According to the studies by Smith (2003) an observer of the English language in its main corpuses should be aware of the differences which are referred to modal verbs. In this respect the modals with strong and weak necessity are emphasized. Here lies a difference between the analyzed marginal modals. “Need (to)” distinguishes from “ought to” in its level of necessity owing to stronger quality of its marking. In previous times this features of semi-modals were observed with particular outlook on the essential, but not functional characteristics of quasi-modals and marginal part of modal verbs on the whole. In other words, on the stage of Early Modern English the significance of language corpora concerned with English was considered with more epistemic and root senses.

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Data and methodology

The data for the research were collected in straightforward direction to the underlined grammatical phenomena. The linguistic approach in this respect touches upon the credibility of sources with a particular time span of last twenty years. Due to the dynamic nature of language itself, the study is observed on the examples of British, American, and Australian corpuses. As it was mentioned before, the points on Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus and other types of corpuses are determined in the survey as of the purpose for additional examples. The thing is that the language, as the complicated structure with definite hierarchy of its main constituents is shaped with the significance of its representation in the historical and current practical approach. This is why the database is intended to characterize the wholeness of the grammatical features of semantic and syntactic nature of marginal modals “need” and “ought to”.

The readings are outlined with the particular lexical variability observed in terms of the wholeness of corpuses. Hence, the word count presupposed with each corpus under analysis occupies more than a million words used in written and spoken forms. Nevertheless, the approach for objective representation of information in the paper is grounded more on two elements being of great significance. According to Coates (1983), even with a large scope of language units there will be areas not encompassed by the research. This is why the database in this study seeks for more direct information about target phenomena.

Results and Analysis

The reality of PDE is still observed in its spread in the world and dominance over the rest of languages. In this respect the narrow view on the modal verbs is highlighted with its specific group of modals, namely marginal one. Collins (2009) finds out that the structural organization of modal verbs in Modern English is still supposed with two-sided division into ‘central’ and ‘marginal’ modals. The epistemic negation of semi-modal verbs is imposed in contemporary language reality with points on strong or weak marking of modals. “Need” and “ought to” are characterized today with particular relation to the domain of necessity and obligation. Due to theses two factors the use of these marginal modals has in PDE a so-called “infinitival” connection. In other words, the semantic colouring of both modal verbs is considered with an emphasized and expressly underlined marker for action.

“Ought to” and “need (to)” have less frequency in spoken language due to their replacement with other particular modals, such as “should” and “have to”. This owes to the fact that English-speaking people in their massive estimation tend to use more short phrases and with more facilities in colouring of the meaning for more understanding of a speaker. Loureiro-Porto (2008) admits that in contemporary stage of the English language the point on periphrastic tendency of modal verbs is greatly described in comparison of Early Modern English (eModE) and PDE. Here the notion of the modal “need” seems to be replaced in most cases by another semi-modal “have”. The modal verb “ought to” is considered to be common with “should”. However, this is likely for the oral speech in which the language has premises of social and cultural background. Thus, in British corpus the frequency of both marginal modals is seen to be of high rate. This is imposed in its written and spoken realities. Moreover, the phonetic framework of British English today is concerned with the Received and Estuary pronunciation (Tönnies, 2008). In these two types of pronunciation the tradition for use of more than one example of auxiliary means for expression of the discourse’s tints in the process of verbalization or predication is obvious due to the socio-linguistic background of British English, or Brenglish, to be precise.

In fact the frequency of the modal “ought to” is higher in BNC corpus rather than in MICASE. It is explained by the tendency in Great Britain to follow traditional sounding and patterning of the sentences. Furthermore, the negative sense prescribed to this auxiliary greatly describes the nature of BNC itself. I propose to analyze this assertion directly on the following examples:

  • You ought to become there on time.
  • The cab is dirty, and I oughtn’t to go anywhere.
  • You need not keep a strict eye on him.
  • You need to support the idea on symposium.

In MICASE, for example, suchlike trends of the discussion are described in some different graphical and semantic shaping. The approach is outlined in most cases with the construction of personal pronoun you + infinitive:

  • But, of course, you need to wok over this article more.
  • Again you ought to better respond toward him.

All in all, the significance of both auxiliaries in BNC is apparent. On the other hand, modal “need” is widely used in the MICASE corpus, but “ought to” is still in process of sequential reduction and replacement by other mostly used auxiliaries. According to Loureiro-Porto (2004) the use of periphrastic verbal-nominal structures in Old English (OE) and eModE for further development on PDE is outlined with the have need to in OE transformed into need and then have to and must: One of the examples shows the difference:

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  • We were so over-furnisht with the facts, that we have need to make him apathetic about the truth.
  • You need not do this anymore.

The use of ought to in declarations is seen particularly in some corpuses of English. It seems that ought to encompassed all lexical features of the verb, but still there is a wide trend of inclination among speakers to replace ought to into can, have to and should (Lee, 1999).

  • You ought to wear this coat, because of its trendy collar.
  • You should go anywhere, but, please, do not rely on me.

According to the Lee’s (1999) raised three questions about the use of “ought to” mentioned above, Swan & Westvik (1997) provides the do-support of quasi-modals in their written and spoken variants on the example of British English and American English:

Variant of English Example
British and American
He ought to leave right now, oughtn’t he?
He ought to leave right now, shouldn’t he?

Here lies the difference in making language simpler as for the American corpus of the English language. Moreover, the epistemic use of semi-modals and above mentioned two of them are distributed in the periphrastic expressions with additional markers. Modals and semi-modals in their common and peculiar features show the synchronic and diachronic diversity in the language (Smith, 2003). This is why contemporary approach toward definition of the modals “need” and “ought to” is to be strengthened in their realization. Both marginal modals can be analyzed due to main factors:

Feature Need (to) Ought to
Property marginal marginal
Context non-affirmative non-affirmative
Marker for action strong weak
Realization semi-modal, auxiliary, lexical auxiliary
Semantic Role negation, interrogation Necessity, obligation

The modal verb ought to is unique within other modals due to its normal reference to infinitive and slight approach toward the situations related to the non-affirmative context (Collins, 2009). Need, on the other hand, differs in its bilateral approach to either auxiliary or lexical verbs. All in all on the example of different corpora of the English language these two modals seem to be more and more “marginal” owing to the natural urge of people to replace verbs with this graphical implementation by semantically similar modals. In terms of modal need this trend is highlighted with more frequent use of it in the lexical colouring.

One should also make difference between almost similar forms of the same verb, namely: need and need to. In this respect Smith (2003, p. 245) outlined the idea that need to acts like a main verb, whereas need has all the characteristics of a modal but is limited to non-assertive contexts, such as You needn’t go there and Need we go there?” From the other side, Collins (2009, p. 14) characterizes the marginal modal ought to as the “very marginal in the apodosis of an unreal conditional”: If the train left at 3 pm the delegation ought definitely to be in time. Thus, the main domains of both modals encompass the features of necessity, obligation, interrogation and slight claims.


Thus, the use of the marginal modal verbs “need” and “ought to” based on the different corpora showed the contemporary tendency for lessening of meaning of these verbs in the spoken and written language. In this case the natural development of the language is intended to the achievement of facilities in outlining different language phenomena. Grammaticalization in the British, American, and Australian corpora highlighted still debatable approach in us of both modals. Auxiliary ought to in the historical development is outlined with more patterned and bizarre approach. Especially in Australia this verb is substituted by another auxiliary should in almost all cases (Lee, 1999).

Particular attention was grabbed on the relation of analyzed marginal modals to the historical development of the English language, so that to see the “evolution” of semantic characteristics maintained in the grammatical properties of the language. Particular examples pointed out the details which can be seen in practice while making use of the auxiliaries need and ought to. The assertion of Collins (2009) that marginal modals are still not so straightforward explains the rare emergence of them in the language discourse throughout the wholeness of different English language corpora. Constant synchronic and diachronic process inside the language reality within different geographical dimensions still perceives the use of modal elements in verbalization, as significant for analytical type of languages. In fact, marginal in contrast to central modals today seem more emphasized with prescriptions for necessity and particular obligation. For the future analysis of the English language the use of marginal modals can be replaced with new structural units, as it was described in the corpus-based approach to the comparison of OE with eModE (Loureiro-Porto, 2004). This process can be explained with the invention and current use of new stylistic and semantic ways for communication related mostly to high technologies and virtual domain for relationships between language speakers.


Coates, J 1983, The semantics of the modal auxiliaries, Routledge, London.

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Collins, P 2009, Modals and quasi-modals in English, Rodopi, San Diego, CA.

Downing, A & Locke, P 2006, English grammar: a university course, Ed. 2, Taylor & Francis, London.

Hogg, RM, Blake, NF & Lass, R 2000, The Cambridge history of the English language, Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Huddleston, RD & Pullum, GK, A student’s introduction to English grammar, Ed. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Krug, MG 2000, Emerging English modals: a corpus-based study of grammaticalization, Walter de Gruyter, Vienna.

Lee, JFK 1999, ‘Abstract Variants of Ought and Language Teaching’ pp. 134-163, 2009. Web.

Loureiro-Porto, L 2004, ‘A Corpus-Based Approach to eModE have need’, SEDERI: 217-226, Web.

Loureiro-Porto, L 2008, ‘On the grammaticalization of periphrastic modals of necessity in English’, NRG 4 New reflections on Grammaticalization 4. University of Leuven, Web.

Smith, N 2003, ‘Changes in the modals and semi-modals of strong obligation and 93 epistemic necessity in recent British English’, In Faccinetti, Krug & Palmer eds., Modality in Contemporary English: 241-266. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Swan, T & Westvik, OJ 1997, Modality in Germanic languages: historical and comparative perspectives: Trends in linguistics (Vol. 99), Walter de Gruyter, Vienna.

Tönnies, S. 2008, Estuary English: Dialect Levelling in Southern Great Britain GRIN Verlag, Munich.

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"Semantic Features of Marginal Modals “Ought to” and “Need” a Corpus Based Approach." StudyCorgi, 4 Nov. 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Semantic Features of Marginal Modals “Ought to” and “Need” a Corpus Based Approach." November 4, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Semantic Features of Marginal Modals “Ought to” and “Need” a Corpus Based Approach." November 4, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Semantic Features of Marginal Modals “Ought to” and “Need” a Corpus Based Approach'. 4 November.

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