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1.an auxiliary verb (such as `can' or `will') that is used to express modality
A modal verb (also modal, modal auxiliary verb, modal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality – that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and/or obligation.:p.33 The use of auxiliary verbs to express modality is particularly characteristic of Germanic languages. In English, the modal auxiliary verbs from a distinctive class because they are defective; they cannot be inflected, nor do they have non-finite forms. In other words, a modal auxiliary in English is always a non-inflected finite verb.
The following table lists the modal auxiliary verbs of standard English. Most of them appear more than once based upon the distinction between deontic and epistemic modality:
|Modal auxiliary||meaning contribution||Example|
|can1||deontic/dynamic modality||She can really sing.|
|can2||epistemic modality||That can indeed help.|
|could1||deontic modality||He could swim when he was young.|
|could2||epistemic modality||That could happen soon.|
|may1||deontic modality||May I stay?|
|may2||epistemic modality||That may be a problem.|
|might||epistemic modality||The weather might improve.|
|must1||deontic modality||Sam must go to school.|
|must2||epistemic modality||It must be hot outside.|
|shall||deontic modality||You shall not pass.|
|should1||deontic modality||You should stop that.|
|should2||epistemic modality||That should be suprising.|
|will||epistemic modality||She will try to lie.|
|would||epistemic modality||Nothing would accomplish that.|
The verbs in this list all have the following characteristics:
The verbs/expressions dare, ought to, had better, and need not behave like modal auxiliaries to a large extent, although they are not productive in the role to the same extent as those listed here. Furthermore, there are numerous other verbs that can be viewed as modal verbs insofar as they clearly express modality in the same way that the verbs in this list do, e.g. appear, have to, seem, etc. In the strict sense, though, these other verbs do not qualify as modal verbs in English because they do not allow subject-auxiliary inversion, nor do they allow negation with not. If, however, one defines modal verb entirely in terms of meaning contribution, then these other verbs would also be modals and so the list here would have to be greatly expanded.
A modal auxiliary verb gives more information about the function of the main verb that follows it. Although they have a great variety of communicative uses, these functions can all be related to a scale ranging from possibility (may) to necessity (must). Within this scale there are two functional divisions:
The following sentences illustrate the two uses of must:
Another use of modal auxiliaries is to indicate dynamic modality, which refers to properties such as ability or disposition. Some examples of this are can in English, können in German, and possum in Latin. For example, I can say that in English, Ich kann das auf Deutsch sagen, and Illud Latine dicere possum.
Modals in English form a very distinctive class of verbs. They are auxiliary verbs like be, do, and have, but they are defective insofar as they cannot be inflected like these other auxiliary verbs, e.g. have → has vs. should → *shoulds, do → did vs. may → *mayed, etc. In clauses that contain two or more verbs, any modal that is present appears as the left-most verb in the verb catena (= chain of verbs). What this means is that the modal verb is always finite (although it is, as stated, never inflected). In the syntactic structure of the clause, the modal verb is the clause root. The following dependency grammar trees illustrate the point:
The verb catenae are in blue. The modal auxiliary in both trees is the root of the entire sentence. The verb that is immediately subordinate to the modal is always an infinitive. The fact that modal auxiliaries in English are necessarily finite means that within the minimal finite clause that contains them, they can never be subordinate to another verb, e.g.
This trait of modal auxiliaries has motivated the designation defective, that is, modal auxiliaries are defective in English because they are so limited in their form and distribution. One can note further in this area that English modal auxiliaries are quite unlike modal verbs in closely related languages. In German, for instance, modals can occur as non-finite verbs, which means they can be subordinate to other verbs in verb catenae; they need not appear as the clause root.
The table below lists some modal verbs with common roots in English, German and Dutch. The article English modal auxiliary verb provides an exhaustive list of modal verbs in English and the article German verb#Modal verbs provides a list for German, with translations. The article Dutch verbs#Irregular verbs gives conjugations for some Dutch modals. Words in the same row of the table below share the same etymological root. Because of semantic drift, however, words in the same row may no longer be proper translations of each other. In addition, the English and German verbs will are completely different in meaning; the German will one has nothing to do with constructing the future tense. These words are false friends. In English, the plural and singular forms are identical. For German and Dutch, both the plural and singular form of the verb are shown.
|can||können, kann||kunnen, kan|
|shall||sollen, soll||zullen, zal|
|will||wollen, will||willen, wil|
|must||müssen, muss||moeten, moet|
|may||mögen, mag||mogen, mag|
|tharf||dürfen, darf||durven, durf|
The English could is the preterite form of can; should is the preterite of shall; and might is the preterite of may. (This is ignoring the use of "may" as a vestige of the subjunctive mood in English.) These verbs have acquired an independent, present tense meaning. The German verb möchten is sometimes taught as a vocabulary word and included in the list of modal verbs, but it is actually the past subjunctive form of mögen. The Dutch verb durven is not considered a modal (but it is there, nevertheless) because its modal use has disappeared, but it has a non-modal use analogous with the English dare.
Despite the etymological relatedness of these verbs across the Germanic languages, the modal verbs in German and Dutch (and other Germanic languages) are much different than their English counterparts. The German and Dutch modals are not near as defective; they can be inflected to an extent and they appear as infinitives and participles, as illustrated now with the dependency grammar trees of two German sentences:
The first tree on the left is noteworthy because it contains the two modal verbs muss and dürfen, whereby muss is finite and dürfen is a non-finite infinitive. The second tree is noteworthy because the modal verb gekonnt is in participle form. The English translations of these sentences must use other, non-modal verbs (i.e. have to be allowed to and able to) because the English modals never occur as infinitives or participles.
Deontic (agent-oriented) usages of modals tend to develop earlier than epistemic uses, and the former give rise to the latter.:pp.192-199 For example, the inferred certainty sense of English "must" developed after the strong obligation sense; the probabilistic sense of "should" developed after the weak obligation sense; and the possibility sense of "may" and "can" developed later than the permission or ability sense. Two typical sequences of evolution of modal meanings are:
French, like other Romance languages (and like German and Dutch), has no modal auxiliary verbs in the sense that English has them. Instead, it expresses modality using conjugated verbs followed by infinitives: for example, pouvoir 'to be able', devoir 'to have an obligation', and vouloir 'to want':
The finite verbs peux, dois, and veux convey agreement with the subject je (1st person singular). In other words, these verbs can be inflected. The English modals, in contrast, are invariable in this area, as emphasized above.
Spanish, like French, uses fully conjugated verbs followed by infinitives, e.g.
|(I) want to||go|
The correct use of andar in these examples would be reflexive. Puedo andar means 'I can walk', Puedo irme means 'I can go' or 'I can take myself off/away'. The same applies to the other examples.
|This section requires expansion. (May 2008)|