Grammar Toolbox: Modal verbs

Look at the following sentences and try to translate them into Norwegian:

  • You can win tomorrow’s game.
  • You will win tomorrow’s game.
  • You must win tomorrow’s game.

The words that give these sentences different meanings are called modal verbs. There are ten of them, and some of them have more than one Norwegian translation:

  • can - “kan” - Can you help me with this?
  • could - “kunne” - Could you see the ocean from your hotel room?
  • may - “kan, få lov” - They may say “no’. May I leave now?
  • might - “kan” - It might happen again.
  • will - “vil, skal” - I think she will agree. I will do it later.
  • would - “ville” - They would not tell us.
  • shall - “skal”  - Shall I open a window?
  • should - “burde” - You should speak louder.
  • must - “må” - He must be out of his mind.
  • ought to - “burde” - We ought to start packing now.

Modals do not have the -s in the 3rd person singular:

  • He can win tomorrow’s game.

Modals do not take do-support in questions or negations (not-sentences).

  • Could you understand his Norwegian?
  • She would not tell.

They are also used in tag questions:

  • He can do it, can’t he?
  • She couldn’t do it, could she?

 

Modals cannot stand alone as full verbs. They must be followed by a verb:

  • Kan du kinesisk? Can you speak Chinese?

Or we must use a different construction:

  • Vil du hjem allerede? Do you want to go home already?

The only exceptions are when the modal is repeated as an answer or in a question:

  • Can you speak French? No, I can’t.
  • Do you think Paul might fail? Yes, he might.
  • You should take more exercise. Should I?
  • We can’t afford to eat out this evening. Can’t we?

 

Can/could/may/might

All these are used for Norwegian “kan’, but in different situations:

  • Jeg kan (godt) gjøre det. I can do it
  • Kan du sende meg saltet? Could you pass the salt, please?
  • Han kan nok klare det. He can/may/might manage it.
  • Det kan hende hun ler av det. She may/might laugh at it.

Only could may be used about past situations:

  • De kunne ikke dra. They couldn’t leave.

 

"Skal" and "skulle"

The problem with shall is that it looks like “skal” but is very rarely used. It appears only in questions where the speaker offers to do something or suggests an action:

  • Shall I open the window?
  • Shall we leave?

Shall is normally used only with I and we.

In other situations, “skal” needs different translations, such as:

  • Jeg skal gjøre det. I will do it. / I’m going to do it.
  • De skal ta testen neste uke. They are going to take the test next week.
  • Du skal ikke si sånt. You shouldn’t say such things.

Similarly, should looks like “skulle” but means “burde’:

  • Du burde ikke kjøpe den. You shouldn’t buy it.
  • Du burde virkelig tenke deg om. You really ought to reconsider.

And in situations like the following, “skulle” can never be translated as should:

  • De kunne ikke gå ut. De skulle gjøre lekser. They had to do their homework.