Modal Review

Compare relative strengths of modal  meanings

argument
 

 

Obligation and Necessity — weak to strong

OBLIGATION –MODALS

A modal may express what the speaker feels is right morally or proper under the circumstances (actualization).  The choice of modal may range from a weak suggestion to strong advice. Also called deontic modality. See Grammar Notes.

forbiddenYou must not to be a unkind.  (forbidden)

a good ideaYou could try to be a little nicer.  (an idea, an option)

mildly recommendedYou ought to try to be a little nicer.  (mildly recommended)

recommendedYou should try to be a little nicer.  (recommendation)

strongly recommendedYou had better try to be a little nicer. (strongly recommended)

obligationYou must try to be a little nicer. (obligation)

imperativeBe a little nicer.  (imperative)

OBLIGATION – EXPRESSIONS

A similar meaning may be expressed with other words, the choice of which depends on the situation and cultural rules (age, rank, status, etc.) Wording in question form, past tense, or indirect speech "softens" the impact.

forbiddenI forbid you to be unkind. (forbidden)

a good ideaConsider being a little nicer.  (an idea, an option)

mildly recommendedWhy don't you try to be a little nicer. (mildly recommended)
It would be a good idea if you were a little nicer

recommendedI suggest you try to be a little nicer.  (recommendation)

strongly recommendedI advise that you try to be a little nicer. (strongly recommended)

obligationYou need to be a little nicer. (obligation)
You have to be a little nicer. (obligation)

imperativeBe a little nicer, or else… (imperative)

 

Also called deontic modality (Huddleston 178)
mild (adj.) – not strong
or else – otherwise; if not; sometimes use as a threat with the intention of punishment or injury
persuasion (n.) –  to try to get someone to do something by advising, urging, moving to action, reasoning, etc.

Also see Imperatives

Relative strength depends on tone of voice, body language, and other social circumstances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Possibility

Weak to Strong

rain
 

 

Possibility / Degree of Certainty — weak to strong

POSSIBILITY / DEGREE OF CERTAINTY – MODALS

A modal may also express a person's attitude toward factuality of a situation, the likelihood that a situation is true or false. One infers factuality from known details.

improbableIt probably isn't rain that I hear. (improbable)
It might not be rain that I hear.

possibleIt could be rain that I hear. (possible)
It might be rain that I hear.

possibleIt may be rain that I hear. (possible)

probableIt should be rain that I hear. (probable, likely)

probableIt must be rain that I hear. (probable, almost certain)

certainIt is rain that I hear.  (certain, fact)

POSSIBILITY / DEGREE OF CERTAINTY– EXPRESSIONS

A similar meaning may be expressed with a phrase or clause. The degree of strength depends on the amount of knowledge the person has at hand or one's strength of conviction.

improbableI doubt that it is rain that I hear.
It is unlikely that it is rain that I hear.

possiblePossibly, I hear rain.
It is possible that I hear rain.

possibleIt is likely that I hear rain.

probableI expect it is rain that I hear.
It is probable that I hear rain.

probableIt has got to be rain that I hear.

certainWithout a doubt, it is rain that I hear.
Clearly, it is rain that I hear.

 

conviction (n.) – having a fixed or firm belief
epistemic (adj.) – a speaker's evaluation/judgment of, degree of confidence in, or belief of the knowledge about a situation; the way speakers communicate their doubts, certainties, and guesses
factuality (n.) – the degree to which one can accept something as fact, true; based on facts; also called epistemic (Huddleston 178)
infer (v.) – to form an opinion that something is probably true because of information that you have
inference (n.) – an opinion that is formed on details or knowledge that you have

Also see Might/Must have inference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom to Act

Weak to Strong

 

 

 

Freedom to Act (Duty-Option) — weak to strong

FREEDOM TO ACT – MODALS

A modal expresses a speaker's attitude on a person's freedom to act in a particular situation. 

obligation– no freedomShe must go . (duty, obligation –little freedom)

some freedomShe may go. (permission– some freedom to act)

freedomShe can go. (option – high freedom to act)

FREEDOM TO ACT – EXPRESSIONS

A similar meaning may be expresses with a phrase  or a clause. The degree of strength depends on age, rank, status, and other cultural influences.

obligation– no freedomShe is required to go. (duty, obligation)
She has / needs to go.  

some freedomShe has permission to go. (permission)
She is allowed got.

freedomShe has the ability, know how, and opportunity to go. (option)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modal Meaning

Present to Past

 

 

 

Loosely Related Modal forms

PRESENT

will

may

can

shall

must

PAST  (?)

would

might

could

should

—     (had to)

 

 

Similar Meaning

PRESENT

He says that he will arrive late.  (intention)

He says that he may arrive late.   (possibility)

He says that he can arrive by 11:00.   (ability)

He says that he shall arrive after 11:00.   (obligation –1st person only)

PAST – WITHIN A PAST CLAUSE

He said that he would arrive late.   (intention)

He said that he might arrive late.   (possibility)

He said that he could arrive after 11:00.   (ability)

He said that we should arrive after 11:00.   (obligation)

 

 

 

 

Different Meaning

PRESENT

I can drive there.   (ability)

I could be a little late.  (possibility)

You may smoke here.  (permission) See may/can

Shall we go in there?  (invitation)

I will go jogging Tuesday.  (intention)

You must eat this. (necessity)

PAST

I could drive there.  (potential option, possibility, ability, permission)

I could have been a little late. (a guess, opportunity lost)

He might smoke here.   (possibility, potential)

Should we go in there?  (caution, obligation)

I would go jogging Tuesday.  (past habit) but I have an appointment. (excuse)

You must have eaten this. (conclusion)
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modals and Expressions

Past Tense and Back-shifted Forms

 

 

 

Modals in the Past or Subordinated Clauses

PRESENT
FUTURE

I will leave tonight.

He is going to leave tonight. (intends to)

He leaves tonight. (as scheduled)

INVITATION

Shall we go into this restaurant?

Let's go into this restaurant.

Why don't we go into this restaurant.  

REQUEST

Would you please close the door?

Please close the door. / Do me a favor and close the door.  

PERMISSION

May I come in?

Can I come in?

Could I come in?

Might I come in? very formal

Do I have permission to come in?

Am I permitted to come in?

Let me in. permission or demand 

PHYSICAL ABILITY

She can run twenty six miles.

She is able to run twenty six miles.

MENTAL ABILITY

She can solve that problem.

She knows how to solve that problem.

SUGGESTION

You could try a new method.

You should try  a new method.

Why don't you try a new method.

I suggest that you try a new method.  

PREFERENCE

She would rather come today.

She would rather come today than tomorrow.

She prefers that you come today.

 

OPPORTUNITY

You could go with us if you have time.

POSSIBILITY

He may be hurt.

She might be hurt.

He could be hurt.

It is possible that he is hurt.

Possibly, he is hurt.

Perhaps, he is hurt.  

ADVICE

You should write to your family.

You ought to write your family.

You ought not to write that to them.

You had better write your family.

You'd better not do that.

It's a good idea to write your family

I am supposed to write to my family. social expectation 

NECESSITY

I must talk to you right away.

It is necessary that I talk to you

I have to talk to you.

I need to talk to you.
 

EXPECTATION / PROBABILITY

His train should arrive soon.

I expect that his train will arrive soon.

It is probable that his train will arrive soon.
 

CONCLUSION

He is not at work. He must be sick. a sure guess

He's not here. I guess / believe / think he is sick. a sure guess

I conclude he is sick.
 

 

PAST
FUTURE  (within a past clause)

He said that he would leave. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't.

He would have left, but his car was not working. He didn't leave.

He said that he was going to leave. But he didn't.

He said that he was going to leave, but he didn't.  

INVITATION

REQUEST

 

PERMISSION

He said that we could come in.

He said that we had permission to come in.

He said that we were permitted to come in.

PHYSICAL ABILITY

She could run twenty-six miles always or multiple events

Because she was naturally strong, she could lift 75 pounds.

She was able to run 26 miles. single- or multiple events

After working out for six months, she was able to lift 75 pounds.

MENTAL ABILITY

She thought she could solve that problem.

She knew how to solve that problem.  

SUGGESTION

I thought you could have tried a new method. but you didn't.

I believe you should have tried  a new method. but you didn't.

PREFERENCE

She said that would rather have come today than tomorrow.

OPPORTUNITY LOST

I wished that you could have gone with us. but you didn't.    (hypothetical)

 

 

POSSIBILITY

He said that he may have been hurt.

He added that she might have been hurt.

He told us that he could have been hurt.

It was possible that he was hurt.

Possibly, he was hurt.

ADVICE TOO LATE

We thought that you should have written to your family. but you didn't.    (hypothetical)

You ought to have written to your family.

You ought not to have written to them.

NECESSITY

I had to talk to you right away.

I needed to talk to you.

It was necessary that I talked to you.

EXPECTATION / PROBABILITY

He said that the train should have arrived. but it didn't   (hypothetical)

I expected that his train would have arrived soon.

CONCLUSION

He wasn't at work. He must have been sick.

I concluded that he was sick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Grammar Descriptions

Advanced

 

 

Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions

AZAR / SWAN BIBER / HUDDLESTON
AZAR BIBER

Modal auxiliaries generally express speakers attitudes. Modals can express whether a speaker feels something is:

  • necessary (must, need to, have to)
  • advisable (should, ought to, had better)
  • permissible (may, can, could, might, would you mind)
  • possible (may, might, could)
  • probable

And a modal can express the strength of the attitude. Each modal has more than one meaning. 

Modals do not take -s  (agreement), and they are followed by the simple verb form (exc. ought).    (Azar 9-1, 10-1)

Nine central modal auxiliaries: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would  — They differ from other verbs both lexical verbs and primary auxiliaries, in that they have no nonfinite forms (but have contracted forms I'd, can't ).

Modals and semi-modals can be grouped into three categories: (485)

  • permission/ possibility / ability: can, could, may, might
  • obligation / necessity: must, should, had better, have (got) to, need to ought to, be supposed to
  • volition / prediction: will, would, shall, be going to

Modal auxiliaries:

  • are invariant forms
  • precede the negative particle "not"
  • precede the subject in yes-no questions
  • are followed by bare infinitive (without "to")
  • cannot co-occur with each other (*might could)

Marginal auxiliaries dare (to), used (to).
Semi-modals ought (to), have (to), need (to), be going (to), had better, have got (to)

SWAN HUDDLESTON

The modals — can, could, may, might, will would, shall, should, must and ought (Br-Eng) — are called modal auxiliary verbs. They:

  • have no -s in third person singular
  • have questions, negatives, and tags made without do
  • are followed by modal infinitive without "to".
  • have no infinitive or past forms (exc. would, should, could, might in subordinated clauses)
  • express past ideas with a perfect form (have + participle) should have been, should have known, etc.

"We use them [modals], for example, to talk about things we expect, which are or are not possible, which we think are necessary, which we want to happen, which we are not sure about, which tend to happen, or which have not happened." (Swan 353)

Modal Auxiliaries have five distinct properties:

  • primary forms only (no inflectional forms)
  • no person or number  agreement
  • bare infinitival complement (plain form – no "to"
  • a required verb form in a "remote conditional" (hypothetical)
  • modally remote preterit in a main clause — could, might, would, should. (Could / would you help me please?

See "Modality" below.

 

 

 

 

Modality

BIBER HUDDLESTON

Each modal can have two types of meaning:

  • intrinsic actions and events that humans (or other agents) control directly: permission, obligation, volition (or intention)
  • extrinsic logical status of events or states; assessments of likelihood: possibility, necessity, or prediction

(Biber  6.6.0-6.6.4)

Modality    (3 §9.2.2)

  • epistemic what the speaker believes is probable; likelihood based on inference (factuality)  He must / may / might be here.
  • deontic what the speaker feels is right morally or feels is right for the sake of expediency (actualization)  He must / should / could do the work.
  • dynamic the subject's own ability or willingness to act. (Dynamic modality does not express the speaker's opinion, nor does the speaker affect the situation.)   He can speak Swahili. (ability) I will have lunch. (volition)

 

  • Strong vs. Weak Modality the strength of the speaker's commitment to the factuality or actualization.  → He must be here.  vs. He may be here. (See external vs. internal negation (Huddleston 3 §9.2.1)
  • Medium Strength Modality  He should be here.    

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

Office Discussion

business is down

 

 

Read for Errors

Mr. Wilson (Sales Manager): James, what do you think of these numbers?

James (an intern): Our business is down.  We had better be doing better, Mr. Wilson.

W: What do you think is causing our losses?

J: We should improve our website content and offer on-line sales.  We also should  add product reviews from satisfied customers. We also might consider paying for ads on other related websites.

W: How would we go about doing that?

J: We have to hire an SEO specialist in marketing to review our website.

W: Do you think we need to do that, or can we do that ourselves?

J: None of us has those specific skills or access to analytics programs.

W: OK. Then, let's do that.  Do you know whom we should contact.

J: I don't know, but I might email some friends and ask for recommendations for SEO Specialists.

W: OK.  Do so and get back to me.  It's clear that we must do something about these falling numbers.

J: Yes, sir.  I shall email them to you as soon as possible.

analytics programs – programs that analyze website "click" data

intern – a person who is learning a job from a senior employee
numbers
(expression) – statistics for the "health" of a business

manager – an employee within a company who has responsibility for a part of the business and other employees

 

recommendation – referral, someone else says someone, something or a service is good

SEO – "search engine optimization"; appearing high, near the top a page, after a search for a specific keyword

subordinate – person who works for a manager or a boss, an employer

 

 

 

 

Correct or incorrect modal choices?

In the discussion above, one person is a manager (Mr. Wilson) and the other person is his subordinate James, an employee under his management.   Decide whether Jame's choices of modals are correct for this situation of different status.

  1. Select your response–correct or incorrect. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 1-10" button.

 

1.
J: Our business is down.  We had better be doing better, Mr. Wilson.

     

2.
J: We should improve our website content and offer online sales. 

     

3.
J: We also should add product reviews from satisfied customers.

     

4.
J: We also could consider paying for ads on other related websites.

     

5.
W: How would we go about doing that?

     

6.
J: We have to hire an SEO specialist in marketing to review our website.

     

7.
W:Then, let's do that. Do you know whom we should contact?

     

8.
J: I don't know, but I might email some friends and ask for recommendations for SEO Specialists.

     

9.
W: It's clear that we must do something about these falling numbers.

     

10.
I shall email them to you as soon as possible.

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Kids in My Class

classroom
 

 

Read the situation and select a modal for the sentence.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 11-23" button.

 

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.
 

17.
Where's Sharon? Class has just started and she is not here. She's occasionally late, but she always comes.

18.
Emma lost her backpack. She also lost all her notes, class books, and other personal supplies. Make a suggestion.

19.
Jonah was offered an opportunity to move ahead one class, but he didn't want to.
He gone a higher class, but he chose not to.

20.
Evelyn prefers to sit by a window and not in a corner of the room. What can you say about her preference?
She sit by the window.

21.
Nina found backpack with the name "Emma" on it.  She thinks she should leave it behind some bushes as a joke. What would you tell her?
You take it to the main office.

22.
Nina was late to class because she took the lost backpack to the main office. 
The teacher excuse her being late.

23.
The teacher excused Nina because "doing the right thing" is important.
The teacher excuse Nina's lateness.