Shades of Modality

By / Category: infographic, verbs / Aug, 29th 2011 / Print Story

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“Writers should learn to properly use auxiliary modal verbs.”

Even if a reader has no idea what a modal verb is, this statement is more likely to agitate than inform, and it would start any other article on a sour note. Lurking at the beginning of the sentence, the modal verb “should” is responsible for this agitation.

What are Auxiliary and Modal Verbs?

Auxiliary verbs are “helper verbs” used in combination with other verbs to assist in stating tone, tense, condition/state, voice or mood. A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb that expresses possibility, necessity or obligation. Because of their commanding tone, modals must be used carefully, and some writers attempt to avoid them entirely.

Nobody likes to be told what to do. If a reader senses this is happening, he becomes defensive and reads more skeptically. Sometimes, this is completely subconscious, but it is no less of a problem. Limiting those bullying, bossy modals can make writing more pleasant.

Tricky Little Modals

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Grammar.net

Modal Verbs List

Shifting the subject from reader to writer is one way to diffuse the commanding tone. This mimics a psychology technique which prevents discussions from becoming attacks–“you hurt my feelings” is aggressive, while “I feel hurt” is passive.

Here are English’s bossiest verbs with suggestions on how to use and/or avoid them. With some, the entire thought behind the original sentence is re-worked to remove the commanding voice. Facts and friendliness have more effect than a bold command, and do not underestimate the power of “please”.

Dare
The most feisty of modal verbs, when “dare” is used as a modal, it has a very specific and negative purpose.
“Don’t you dare!” or “How dare you tell her about that?”

Need
“Need” is a black or white word, so use it sparingly.
“You need this.”
Possible alternative: “Would you like this?”

Must
“You must come with us.”
Possible alternative: “We’d love to have your company.”

Should
“You should eat more vegetables.”
Possible alternative: “Vegetables are nutritious, and some of them even taste good.”

Will
“You will like this.”
Possible alternative: “I hope you like this.”

Ought
“Polly ought to try a new hair style.”
Possible alternative: “I wonder if Polly likes any of the new hair styles.”

Can
This verb sounds like the writer/speaker is granting permission–little better than the commanding tone.
“You can come with.”
Possible alternative: “We would like for you to come with.”

May
Like “can”, this verb also tends to sound like a parent voice granting permission.
“Yes you may.”
Possible alternative: “Please do.”

Shall
“You shall not pass!”
Possible alternative: “Please consider an alternate route!”

The last example is from a popular novel/movie and illustrates the power of modals. Can you think of other catch phrases containing modal verbs? If you remove the modal, does that catch phrase lose its energy?

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