• Good Question: Why do we say He may need and not He may needs?

    My student’s questions have always been a great source of learning for me as an English teacher. Yesterday, for instance, a student asked me a question that made me pause and say out loud, “that’s a good question.” Usually I’m ready with an answer, but I had to really think about this one.

    His question?

    It started with this sentence:

    It has been suggested that, in the case of human brains, smaller may also mean ‘more efficient.”

    Why, he asked, was it “mean” and not “means?” Shouldn’t there be an “s” there? He pointed out that the very next paragraph started with the words, “This means…”

    As I said, it took me a moment to see why “This may means” sounded wrong to me. It became more clear after we looked at other example sentences.

    Look at the following sentences:

    This means we are in trouble.

    This may mean we we are in trouble.

    The difference here is in the word “may.” It’s a modal verb. Modal verbs are a type of helping verb that add mood or feeling to a sentence (much like the subjunctive tense in languages like Spanish). The verb that comes after a modal verb should always be in its base form, meaning no “to” before the verb and no “s” or “ed” at the end. Take a look at the examples below:

    This man may need a doctor.

    This man needs a doctor.

    Other modal verbs include: would, could, should, might, will and can. As you can see in the examples below, the same rule applies:

    This man might need a doctor.

    This man will need a doctor.

    To see a more drastic difference, look at what happens when we add a modal verb to the following sentences:

    Cats are nice. The cat is nice.

    Cats can be nice. The cat can be nice.

    Cats may be nice. The cat may be nice.

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