Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

January 12, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

In this final post on modal verbs I want to look at how modals can be used to suggest levels of intensity and also how we can employ them to be tactful.

For more on Modals (grammar and lists of verbs)

In my first two posts:

Modal verbs 1 and modal verbs 2 we looked at the  way modal verbs are used for expressing different functions. In this post we will look more at how they express intensity and also the nuance that modal verbs can bring to a sentence. Finally we’ll look at a list of verbs which are very often paired with modal auxiliaries.

Expressing levels of intensity.

Look at these three sentences:

  • You must read the instructions before you begin!
  • You should read the instructions before you begin.
  • You could read the instructions before you begin.

What is the difference?

  • In the first we have no choice (or if we ignore the obligation there may be consequences).
  • In the second it is recommended that we read – but not obligatory – so we have choice.
  • The final sentence is quite neutral, do or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. The speaker might add – but it’s quite straight forward.

Here’s another example of how modal verbs help us to determine the level if intensity in an utterance.

Consider these sentences:

  • Students may not leave the examination room before the end of the exam.
  • You have to remain in the examination room until after the exam.
  • You can’t leave the examination room before the end of the exam.

 What is the difference here?

  • The first sentence is very formal. It expresses an external obligation (rule) and is more likely to be written than spoken.
  • The second also expresses a strong obligation which may be part of the spoken instructions before the exam begins.
  • The final sentence is more neutral and might be spoken between two of the exam candidates.

We see that it isn’t only the meaning of the sentence that is important but also the participants in a conversation and, also the circumstances. Let’s explore these a little more:

Jack and Henry are brothers

  • Henry, lend me your this afternoon car will you?
  • Henry, can I borrow your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, would you lend me your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, might I borrow your car this afternoon?

Some possible reasons for the different modal use:

  1. The car is old, Jack borrows it a lot, he is a good driver.
  2. Henry may want to use it, Jack doesn’t often borrow the car, Henry doesn’t often lend his car.
  3. Jack doesn’t usually borrow the car, the car is quite new, Henry is very proud of his car, it is for an urgent reason, Jack’s driving ability is unknown, Henry may need it.
  4. The car is special, Henry doesn’t lend his car, Jack damaged it last time, Jack isn’t a good driver, Jack needs it urgently, Henry was planning to use it and Jack knows this.

Our choice of verb depends on the relationship of the speakers, the situation and the ease with which the person can do what they are being asked to do. We can also add a further dimension – how easy is it to make the request etc.. (perhaps we have to interrupt the person). All of these factors dictate how intense, formal or polite we need to be.

Using modal verbs to add depth or nuance:

Modal verbs can also be used to express formality, belief and more subtle levels of meaning. Here are a few examples:

If we go back to the first list of sentences – we can here add another to the list.

  • You might want to read the instructions before you begin.

This sentence suggests that we may not have considered reading the instructions and the speaker (tactfully) suggests we do because they have information which tells them we should (this could be that we always do things badly because we fail to follow instructions, or perhaps the speaker has done this task before and had a bad experience as a result of not reading instructions first – they want us to derive benefit from their experience)

Here are some more examples:

  • You might have told me they had got divorced! 

The speaker found themselves in an embarrassing situation and is angry.

  • I might have been a famous singer ! 

We understand that something in the speaker’s past made this a possibility but it was never realised.

  • You really shouldn’t treat her that way.

Here the speaker is taking a moral stance as well as giving advice. What is happening is wrong in the eyes of the speaker.

  • I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think your ideas are a little odd!

Would here is used to express polite disagreement.

  • It would have been a good idea to let us know yesterday that the meeting was cancelled.

Again would is used to make this reprimand more polite.

  • They will keep spelling my name wrongly!

We know from this use of will that the speaker is very irritated.

Modals are the most common way of expressing stance in English especially in conversation.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on modal verbs which show a speaker’s belief or stance (the ex. shows probability).

Check out my post on Register for more on formality.

Finally, here is a list of verbs that most often occur with modal auxiliaries:

abide,  admit,   afford,  appeal, cope, guarantee,  handle,  imagine, interact, resist, survive, tolerate

and some that frequently do:
advise, aid, believe, benefit, claim, continue, contribute, count on, deduce, end up, expect, exit, focus, forgive, get over, grumble, harm, overwhelm, pause, reach, rely, respect, solve, withstand

As ever, check in your grammar book and try these out as soon as you can!

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

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