But it need not be thus

This sentence boggles me. I expected to see "it needs not" or "it does not need to". What am I missing?

1 Answer 1


This is "modal need". The English verb "need" can be used as a normal verb

He needs a drink. I don't need a break.

And as a normal verb it has normal grammar. It is transitive and takes a direct object.

But need can also function as a modal verb, like "can" or "will". And modal verbs are defective. Remember you say "He will not be..." and not *"He doesn't will be".

When "need" functions as a modal verb, it is the auxiliary and it doesn't take "s" in the third person.

He need not be ...

Use of "need" as a modal verb is becoming less common in English, so this construction is formal and rather old-fashioned, it is almost never used in positive sentences. It is being replaced by a catenive construction with a normal verb and a "to" infinitive

It need not be thus. → It does not need to be like that.

  • 6
    is this really a modal use, rather than a subjunctive?
    – Tristan
    Dec 21, 2022 at 15:50
  • 5
    @Tristan I'm not aware of any evidence that it's a subjunctive. This construction seems to work the same way as other modal verbs: he will not do it, he should not do it, he need not do it. The only difference from other modal verbs is that it's rarely if ever used without "not" (we say "he will do it" and "he should do it," but not "he need do it"). Also, present subjunctive verbs are usually negated by putting the word "not" before them, as in "I propose that he not need to retake the exam before we give him a passing grade." Dec 21, 2022 at 16:58
  • 2
    Even if it's rarer now, we needn't forget the old ways entirely.
    – fectin
    Dec 21, 2022 at 22:32
  • 3
    No, it's not subjunctive. We're not discussing the possibility that it need not be thus. We're saying directly that it need not be thus, and therefore it has to be indicative. Dec 21, 2022 at 22:47
  • 2
    I think you mean "modal verbs are defective" Dec 22, 2022 at 1:39

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