The aim of the present paper is to give a picture of the semi-modal verb NEED TO in written and spoken British English. The scope of this paper is primarily the synchronic variation of NEED TO, but the quantitative analysis of its diachronic development in the latter decades of the twentieth century has also been performed. My study investigates this modal auxiliary against the backdrop of the modality of strong obligation and epistemic necessity, especially in comparison with MUST, NEED and HAVE TO. NEED TO is described in light of its dramatic increase in frequencies during the past forty years, an increase that has been previously documented in various corpora of written and spoken English. Apart from attempting to answer the question as to what has motivated the rise of NEED TO, the relationship between NEED TO and NEED is also explored.
The study is based on corpus material, and all data is obtained from the British National Corpus. In order to limit the scope of my qualitative investigation of NEED TO, random samples of 200 examples in the written and 200 in the spoken sections of the corpus were selected. Similar samples of equal size were selected at random for NEED, HAVE TO and MUST. The present study is descriptive in nature, making observations and drawing conclusions from the authentic uses of the modality of strong obligation and epistemic necessity by native speakers of English. Among the reasons for the dramatic increase in the frequencies of NEED TO in recent years are the semantic meanings of weaker and more objective obligation it is associated with. These meanings are closely related to the variation in subject types used with NEED TO. The present research has also pointed out certain flaws and inconsistencies in the tagging system of the corpus, which any future student needs to be aware of.
The present paper is based on previous results from earlier studies, and attempts to further explore the meanings and communicative functions of NEED TO, taking into account both its synchronic and diachronic variation. Due to the fact that relatively little attention has been given to NEED TO on its own in previous studies, this paper has sought to fill this gap and will hopefully provide a framework for further research. The current analysis of NEED TO within the wider scope of the modality of strong obligation contributes to the field of corpus studies that have been based on the British National Corpus.