ExplanationAn area of meaning concerned with what is possible, necessary, desirable and so on. This can involve what may or must be true, or what actions are permitted or required. This kind of meaning is expressed by the modal verbs, e.g. may, must, and also by other forms such as certain adjectives (likely, essential) and adverbs (perhaps, probably).
Sometimes we make confident statements, while at other times we want to express some uncertainty. In this resource we will explore the expression of certainty and uncertainty. This is one of the areas of meaning we call modality.
Imagine that you are not sure about the following statements, and find ways to make them sound less certain.Write three different versions for each example.
- Amy has gone home.
- I will definitely have the essay written by tomorrow.
- This disease is caused by a virus.
- The British team will win this match easily.
Rank the given examples in order from most certain to most uncertain, with most certain at the top and most uncertain at the bottom. Identify the words in the examples that help to convey certainty or uncertainty. Are they modal auxiliary verbs? Adverbs? Main verbs? What conclusions can you make about the way that individual word choices affect the certainty of expressions?
This may not be easy, and some examples may be debatable!
Compare your rankings with somebody else. Are there any areas of disagreement?
Read each of the following examples carefully. Which kind of word indicates uncertainty? An adverb or a modal verb?
When we talk (or write), we often make statements of fact about the world: It's hot today; I'm hungry; Tomorrow is my birthday. However, this is not always the case.
We often talk about what is possible or necessary: for example, what might happen or what somebody must do. This kind of meaning is called modality.
Spoken language and written language are often referred to as two different modes. Spoken language has a structure that is often different from that of written language. Because we use spoken language in different situations from written language, we can often rely on context, gesture and shared understanding, so many of the grammatical structures and devices that we tend to use in written language aren’t necessary.
One mode is not ‘better’ than another mode, and we should be careful not to describe spoken language as ‘incorrect’ or ‘wrong’.
Modal auxiliary verbs (or modals for short), as the name suggests, are a kind of auxiliary verb. They have most of the attributes of auxiliary verbs. They are a closed class that is identifiable as a short list, and they convey particular types of meaning.
Here is a table which lists the most important modal verbs (also called the core modals). It shows most of them in pairs as present and past tense forms, which makes them easier to remember.
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