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.

Modal verbs like might and must are one way to express modal meanings, but we’ll see that there are many other ways to do this too. Examples are adverbs like possibly and adjectives like essential.

One important area of modality deals with knowledge or belief: how certain or uncertain we are about something, or how likely we think it is.

Consider the example below. How certain do you think the speaker is about what happened? Which words give you clues about this?

  • I think Dobrolovski may have been slightly involved in that incident. [S2A-014 #192]

The speaker here does not state that Dobrolovski was slightly involved in that incident. Instead he uses I think and the modal verb may to indicate some uncertainty.

Note also the word slightly. This adverb is used to downplay Dobrolovski’s involvement further. Words like this are called hedges.

What about this example?

  • I couldn’t find it ... I think I must have lent it to somebody. [S1A-045 #47–49]

Again, the speaker does not just state a fact (I have lent it to somebody). Instead she uses I think and the modal verb must.

This I think I must construction indicates that she is making a conclusion based on reasoning, rather than on an actual memory of what happened.

Modal meanings can be expressed in various ways. Look at these examples and see if you can find the words that express modal meanings about certainty and uncertainty, or likelihood:

  • Well she might be coming to Clare’s party. [S1A-036 #90]
  • She’s probably coming tonight. [S1A-039 #337]
  • Well there was certainly an infringement. [S2A-014 #250]

In these examples we have the modal verb might, and the adverbs probably and certainly.

What about these examples?

  • Well maybe I’m going to win the football pools this weekend. [S1A-067 #336]
  • Any government he heads is not likely to last more than a few months. [S2B-006 #55]
  • The spillage is certain to cause immense environmental damage. [W2E-001 #12]

In these examples we have the adverb maybe, and the adjectives likely and certain.

Another important area of modality deals with what people are permitted or obliged to do.

Here are some examples from written rules and regulations. Can you spot the modal verbs?

  • Readers must not eat sweets or any other kind of food ... in the reading rooms. [W2D-006 #59]
  • Readers may untie tape securing books ... but should carefully tie the book up again after use. [W2D-006 #51]
  • All cases of leave of absence shall be reported to the Academic Registrar. [W2D-008 #99]

The modal verbs here are must, may, should and shall.

Earlier we saw examples of may and must expressing different degrees of certainty, a different kind of modality.

Many modals can express more than one meaning. For example, compare the following two uses of may.

  • permission: Readers may untie tape securing books.
  • uncertainty: He may be in his office now.

The most likely interpretations here are 'permission' for the first (‘Readers are allowed to untie tape securing books’) and 'possibility' for the second (‘It is possible that he is in his office now’).

Some examples are ambiguous (have more than one possible interpretation). For instance, our example Readers may untie tape securing books could also be interpreted as expressing uncertainty (‘Perhaps readers will untie tape securing books’).

However, often the context makes the intended meaning clear. That example occurred in a set of library rules and regulations. When it is read in context, it is clear that it expresses a meaning of permission.

Using paraphrases (alternative wordings) is one way to test for meanings.

Here are some examples from spoken English which involve permission and obligation:

  • Sorry, can I interrupt you? [S1A-065 #311]
  • You can take these. [S1A-022 #266]
  • You must be very careful with that cos otherwise you’re going to get confused. [S1B-015 #192]
  • I must remember to put that away. [S1A-039 #143]

Here we again have modal verbs: can is used to ask for and give permission to do something, and must is used to indicate that particular actions are ‘necessary’.

The examples that follow next are a little different – they don’t involve modal verbs, but do express meanings related to permission and obligation:

  • Lead pencils only are allowed in the North Library when writing or making notes. [W2D-006 #77]
  • Polygamy is not permitted in England. [W2B-020 #33]
  • General Course students are required to take at least two written examinations. [W2D-007 #85]

Here we have the main verbs allow, permit and require used in passive structures (be + past participle verb form).

Here are some more examples:

  • It is advisable to play one-handed volleys whenever possible. [W2D-013 #107]
  • It is essential to understand the basic key functions. [W2D-014 #53]
  • To compete with the best sides, we still have to improve in all respects. [W2C-014 #77]
  • You’d better be nice to her. [S1A-030 #306]

Here we have the adjectives advisable and essential, and the idiomatic expressions have to and had better.

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