CAN, MAY, AND NEED: MODALITY IN UKRAINIAN

CAN, MAY, AND NEED: MODALITY IN UKRAINIAN

Modality in the Ukrainian language is an extensive and complex topic. Still, today we will only touch on some fundamental understanding of the relationship between English modal verbs and potential Ukrainian equivalents.

Like in English, the Ukrainian modality shows possibility, the ability for something to be or happen, need, obligation, prohibition, request, and permission. Modal words convey the subjective attitude of the speaker toward the statement, express an assessment of the speaker, and help to reproduce the connection between the information in the sentence and reality. 

While learning to use modality in Ukrainian, foreigners need to remember that, in many cases, the same English verb can be translated into Ukrainian in many ways depending on the context. Remember this, and avoid translating your modal verbs directly.

  1. Могти, уміти (мати змогу / можливість) can / could, be able to, to know how
  1. Ukrainian modal verbs могти (can physically, have the possibility) and уміти (to know how, to have knowledge and skills) express physical or mental ability.

E.g. Андрій може купити рибу чи м’ясо. Він має гроші.

Andrii can buy fish or meat. He has money.

Софія вже вміє плавати, хоча їй тільки п’ять років.

Although she is only five years old, Sofia already knows how to swim.

Я не маю можливості (не маю змоги) зараз із тобою говорити. Я на уроці.

I can’t talk to you right now. I’m in class.

  1. The stative word можна indicates reprimand, astonishment, or permission.

E.g. Як можна так багато їсти? 

How can you eat so much?

Можна я сьогодні залишусь вдома?

Can I stay home today?

Я дивуюсь, як можна так красиво співати, як ти.

How can you sing so beautifully?

с) When raising doubts, mistrust, or uncertainty, we use the adverb навряд (чи) in affirmative sentences and the particle невже in questions.

Навряд чи це вона тут стоїть.

It can’t be her standing here.

Невже це вона тут стоїть?

Can it be her standing here?

Note. Some English modal meanings of can have no corresponding equivalents in Ukrainian: 

E.g. You can’t directly translate sentences like: 

I can see and hear you very well. Я можу чути й бачити тебе дуже добре.  In Ukrainian we say: Я дуже добре тебе бачу й чую. 

Can you see me? Ти мене бачиш? Not Ти можеш мене бачити?

2. Можна may/might

  1. When the stative можна expresses permission or request, it’s often translated into English as may or might.

E.g Можна я зайду до тебе сьогодні ввечері?

May I visit you tonight?

Так, можна. Я буду вдома. 

Yes, you may. I’ll be home.

Можна я візьму (мені взяти – Dat.c.) трішки молока з холодильника?

May I have a bit of milk from the fridge?

  1. The polysemantic verb могти also expresses possibility or probability, assumption, uncertainty, or warning. Sometimes we use modal particles б, ще/ще й together with могти.

E.g. Ви можете залишити свої речі в мене.

You may leave your things at my place.

Вона може й не прийти сьогодні.

She might not come today.

Давайте почекаємо, вона може ще прийти.

Let’s wait. She might still come.

Може сніг піде цієї зими, а може й ні. 

It may or may not snow this winter.

Напишіть собі список покупок, бо ви може забути, що треба купити.

You might need to remember what you need to buy, so make a list for yourself. 

Note. A wish in Ukrainian will begin with the particles нехай or хай as opposed to the English way of saying “may.” 

Нехай усі твої мрії здійснюються.

May all your dreams come true.

Хай ваша родина буде щаслива!

May your family be happy!

3. Мусити (треба обов’язково, бути повинним) must, have to

Мати have to

The modal verb мусити and the modal stative word треба express strong obligation, duty, and necessity. The verb мати has less obligational connotation but, together with the adverb обов’язково, it carries the same strong meaning of necessity.

E.g. Я мушу заплатити за світло сьогодні. Я повинен платити вчасно.

I have to pay my electricity bill today. I have to pay it on time.

Йому треба обов’язково сходити до лікаря.

He has to see a doctor.

Я маю прибирати свій дім хоча би двічі на тиждень.

I have to clean my house at least two times per week.

Я маю обов’язково купити сиру, бо ми готуємо лазанью сьогодні.

I have to buy some cheese because we are making lasagne today.

4. Треба, потрібно, необхідно need

The modal stative треба and the modal words потрібно й необхідно are used together with infinitive verbs and express the necessity of some action or activity.

A noun or pronoun that needs to do some action is used in the Dat. c.

E.g. Це треба негайно зупинити.

It needs to be stopped right away.

Йому необхідно купити нові черевики.

He needs to buy new shoes.

Їй потрібно почати працювати.

She needs to start working.

This article helped you get in touch with common modality usage in Ukrainian. And as usual, we have a task for you. Write down in the comments the translation of the sentence: 

Sarah needs to do her homework tonight, so she can’t attend the party. 

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