Monday, April 28, 2014

You Will Can

I ran across the word "peux" in reading French. I could guess from the context it meant "you can," but what was the infinitive form, so I could be certain? I finally located "pouvoir" in the dictionary. A fairly irregular verb, hey?

But then I realized that the equivalent English verb is even more irregular. For instance, what is the future form of "you can"? Not "you will can," which would be talking about your future existence in a John Steinbeck novel, but "you will be able to." Now that's irregular!


  1. It used to be possible to say things like "We shall could do it" in Scots (taking 'could' as the base form). Analogously, there is the Southern "we might could do it." (I've even heard "might would.") All the other Germanic languages do this.

  2. It's like the perfect tense though. For example, I can say "I could visit them" using the proper past tense. In the perfect tense it's "I have been able to visit them".

  3. un peu irrégulier

    Modals are flaky in French and German, so we should be thankful they aren't even more irregular than they are in English.
    "Might could" though is not future tense but a form of subjunctive.

  4. The point was not what we *do* in English -- that is, use the clumsy “to be able” business -- but that in Middle English we had some possibilities still on hand in Swedish, German, Dutch, etc. The future and the subjunctive (or conditional) don’t enter into it. What we have lost is the ability to say “I’d like to cou’d do that” or “If we had cou’d come” [the ‘l’ never belonged there]. (“Can” would doubtless be better here on historical grounds.) [See Stephen J. Nagle, “The English double modals: Internal or external change?” in Jacek Fisiak, ed., Linguistic Change under Contact Conditions (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995), 207-215.]

    If we always did what we are told to do in English, we would always hesitate between “shall” and “will” – under orders from Fowler and Fowler of Oxford – for fear of being thought “Irish and colonial.”


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