Home > Grammar, Oral English > The use of “must” and related modal verbs

The use of “must” and related modal verbs

Many English learners have trouble with the use of “must”. One mistake that lower level learners tend to make is that they use “must” when they should actually use “should”. For example, they make sentences such as “If you have a cold, you must drink some hot tea.” “Must” doesn’t really much sense in such situations because the English learner is really merely trying to advise somebody to do something. Therefore, one should really say “If you have a cold, you should drink some tea.” “Must” may be used to indicate necessity while “should” is typically used to give advice and to give opinions.
Nevertheless, although “must” may be used to express necessity, usually (especially in spoken language) one uses other verbs to express this meaning. Although one could say “I must go.” to indicate the necessity of this course of action, this would sound incredibly formal to an English speaker. However, “must” could be used in this context if one wanted to emphasize the necessity of one’s going. This is a feature of the meaning of “must” that most English learners appear not to be aware of. When “must” is used for necessity, it indicates a high degree of necessity. Therefore, it might sound too adamant if one is addressing somebody else. For example, if a security guard in a condominium were asking a visitor to this condominium to sign the guest sign-in log book, it would not be very polite to say “You must sign in.” Rather, the security guard would be well-advised to say this in the form of a polite request such “Do you mind signing in?” or “Could you sign in, please?”. If this security guard did want to be more direct in expressing the necessity of this course of action, he/she would be well-advised to say either sentence (a) or (b) below:

a) “You have to sign in.”
b) “You gotta sign in.” (the /t/ sound is pronounced as a fast /d/ sound)

Especially in spoken language, one uses “have to” and “gotta” much more frequently
than “must” to indicate necessity. “Gotta” is a contraction of “have got to”. In spoken language, one almost never uses “have” or “has” in this grammatical construction although it is obligatory in written usage. Remember that in North American English, one actually says /′go. Də/ rather than /′go. tə/.
Nevertheless, in written language such as government forms and public signs, one does frequently use “must” to indicate necessity. For example, in the condominium where I used to go swimming, there is a public sign which states the following: “All bathers must take a shower before entering the bathing area.” Presumably, such use of “must” on signs is deemed to be more acceptable to English users since signs can indicate the necessity of performing an action without worrying about causing the person reading it to feel that the message is stated too directly with too much emphasis.
Another very important point with the use of “must” is that another very common use of this modal verb is to make a logical inference rather than to express necessity. For example, if one were to see a person yawning early in the morning, one might say “He must be tired.” Such a use of “must” would mean that the person making this statement is assuming that the person yawning is tired given the obvious fact that people who yawn, especially early in the morning, are often tired. Nevertheless, this would of course only be an assumption rather than something that would be known indubitably.

Categories: Grammar, Oral English
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