E4R: Modal Verbs In The Past Tense

Hey it’s almost Christmas, it’s cold outside and trying to snow, so who wants to have a lengthy discourse about English grammar? Just me? Oh well :P

If Romanian is not your first language but you’re trying to learn it, the good news is that verb tenses and conjugations are extraordinarily simple. In fact, about the only time you’ll ever hear me say Romanian is easy is when it comes to verbs because what with the inflections and noun cases and vowel shifts and Slavic syntax and other lovely bits, it’s a truly difficult language to learn.

Conversely, since verb tenses are so simple in Romanian, it’s hard for native speakers to adapt to more complex verb structures, such as those in English. There are about four different styles used in English to indicate the past tense but today I want to focus on one particular thing – auxiliary or modal verbs.

Essentially, if you’re using the past tense with modal verbs, the second one takes the “present” form. Actually it uses the “infinitive” form but it’s easier to think of it this way. One verb = past tense, modal verb + regular verb = first one past, second one present.

Specifically this refers to the modal verb forms did and could when describing the past tense.

A few examples:

  • Yesterday I saw (past) Elena/Yesterday I did not see (present) Elena
  • Last week you went (past) to Budapest?/Last week could you go (present) to Budapest?

Because Romanian is much simpler, literally the translations for those would be “Yesterday I not saw Elena” and “Last week you no were to Budapest”, both of them using the past tense and thus leading to the mistakes that I hear all the time.

Modal verbs in English are very tricky and they are also used in describing events in the present, in the conditional, in the subjunctive and in a variety of future tenses. There is even a variety of modal verbs used solely to indicate politeness, which confuses a lot of native English speakers (“we would like to thank you for flying with us” is an example).

Click on the link if you’d like more information but today I want to focus on the past tense with did and could, which are always followed by the present (or infinitive) version of the verb. This is also true in negative forms as well.

The following are all correct:

  • Last week I couldn’t go to the concert.
  • Last week I did go to the concert.
  • Last week I went to the concert.
  • Last week I couldn’t cook a bite of food.
  • Last week I did not cook a bite of food.
  • Last week I cooked a bite of food.
  • Last week I could see the movie.
  • Last week I did see the movie.
  • Last week I saw the movie.
  • Yesterday I couldn’t eat a pizza.
  • Yesterday I did eat a pizza.
  • Yesterday I ate a pizza.

And it sure was yummy! :)

Just about all modal verbs use the present/infinitive form in every tense but these tend to get less mixed up by Romanian speakers since “ordinary” future tenses (and others) by definition use the infinitive form. There’s not much confusion between “I would go to the store tomorrow” (conditional) and “Tomorrow I go to the store” (simple future) in terms of which verb forms to use.

The use of modal verbs could and did also apply to questions about the past, which is where Romanians really tend to get things mixed up:

  • Did you see (not saw) Elena?
  • Did you go (not went) to Budapest?
  • Did you eat (not ate) some lunch?
  • Did you talk (not talked) with the owner?

Remember, all of the above examples are the past tense even though they “sound” like the present tense. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “did you saw” or “did you went” I’d be drinking champagne for breakfast :)