Published: 23rd July 2017
Modal mystery decoded: Part II
Modals have always confused us as students. Here is how you use them properly
In my column last week I discussed how certain modal verbs are used to express different functions. As a response to a query, I also suggested ways to help learners of English understand modality. The term ‘modality’ has a special meaning in the study of languages. It refers to the meaning expressed by modal verbs A user of a language can express the meaning of certainty, possibility, willingness, obligation, necessity and so on. by using modals or other words and phrases with modal meanings. Such words and phrases are: possibly, probably, have to, have got to, be able to, and be going to.
Learners are often confused about modality because modal verbs have different uses. It is good to teach and learn modality in context. An isolated sentence cannot help a learner determine the function of a modal verb. It is the context that helps them know the modality.
Here is a story that can help us understand the different uses of modals:
Sheela and Mala are waiting for their friend, Regi, outside a threatre.
Sheela asks Mala, “It is getting late. Shall (1) we getinto the theatre?”
Mala replies, “No, we must (2) wait for her. She has all the three tickets with her. We can’t (3) get inside.”
“Could (4) we find out where she is now?” asks Sheela.
“She must (5) be here in another five minutes. When I called her 15 minutes ago, she said that she had reached the railway station,” replies Mala.
“Normally,it wouldn’t (6) take more than ten minutes to reach this place. We must (7) check again where she is now. She may (8) come late. Shall (9) we call her?” says Sheela.
“Traffic must (10) be bad. You should (11) learn to be patient,” replies Mala. “Should (12) I?” asks Sheela.
Learners are often confused about modality because modal verbs have different uses. It is good to teach and learn modality in context. An isolated sentence cannot help a learner determine the function of a modal verb
In the example above, different modal verbs are used and they are used to express various functions. The numbered modals correspond to the functions: 1) suggestion, 2) necessity, 3) - inability or lack of possibility, 4) suggestion, 5) logical conclusion, 6) uncommoness, 7) necessity, 8) probability, 9) suggestion, 10) logical conclusion, 11) advice, 12) necessity.
Here is a list of nine core modals and their different functions:
1. Can – ability, permission, possibility, request
2. Could – ability, permission, possibility, request, suggestion
3. May – permission, probability, request
4. Might – possibility, probability, suggestion
5. Must – deduction, necessity, obligation, prohibition
6. Shall – decision, future, offer, question, suggestion
7. Should – advice, necessity, prediction, recommendation
8. Will – decision, future, intention, offer, prediction, promise, suggestion
9. Would – conditional, habit, invitation, permission, preference, request, suggestion
The modals can, may, could and might can be used to ask for permission but with slightly different modality. Examples:
-Can I meet the Director now?
-May I meet the Director now? (with politeness)
-Could I meet the Director now? (with less certainty)
-Might I might the Director now? (with uncertainty)
What is the difference in meaning between ‘will’ and ‘would’? Both ‘will’ and ‘would’ can be used to give advice or make a request. ‘Would’ is a more polite alternative to ‘will’. Examples:
-I would lend you the book if you asked me. (advice)
-Would you proofread this report? (request)