"Now Skouri turned his thoughts to what lay ahead. He must make certain that everything went perfectly at the airport." (The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon)

I keep telling myself that the author should have used "had to" which is the past of must, as I learned. So why must? could "must" also express the past tense?

Thank you.

  • It is the present tense from his point of view. – user3169 Feb 20 '16 at 3:19

There are two possible parsings of this must:

  1. Although today must is usually expressed with had to in past tense, must may also act as its own past tense—historically, in fact, it was the past-tense form of the now-defunct verb mote. Note that most of the modals employ past-tense forms with both past and present reference in some contexts; for example

    • John says we might/could/should/must file an objection.
    • John said we might/could/should/must file an objection.
  2. Alternatively, you may understand must here as reflecting Skouri's actual thoughts at the time, as if the sentence were in quotes. This is a very common literary device.

  • Can should be used for the past tense of must, or is it a deprecated usage? – Alejandro Feb 20 '16 at 14:08
  • @ustanak No; should and must have slightly different meanings, depending on context. The syntax of modal verbs is complicated, but the semantics of modal verbs is vastly complicated: entire books have been written on the semantics, and they often disagree because the use of modal verbs changes constantly over time. – StoneyB Feb 20 '16 at 14:46
  • Thank you. I'd use should sometimes as the past tense of should. However, last time I saw a movie where a person said I should go and it was clear that in the scene meant the past. – Alejandro Feb 20 '16 at 14:47

Must does express the past tense in reported speech here and here

  • Thanks a lot to you all. I feel that I'll learn a great deal here. – Rafiq Feb 20 '16 at 3:41

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