I would if I could but I can't....
We need to approach modal auxiliary verbs from two directions. First, there's a long tradition in teaching ESL/EFL/ESOL to work from a list of the individual modals that has a few typical meanings for each of them. For example, will is defined as "future certainty" and would as "past habit" or "conditional." Indeed, you won't have taught ESL/EFL for long before you'll have memorized some of this terminology. Most textbooks include these lists. Such a list would be much more useful for you and your students if you went through and added your own examples based on the kinds of information that would be useful and interesting to your students. If you decide to use these meanings and list, be sure to modify the examples to meet the particular needs and interests of your class.
Second, we also need to recognize that the modals work together in a systematic way. When we decide to use one of the modals, we are also deciding not to use the others. Think of the common question about rules--"Is that a 'should' or a 'must'?"
(Isn't it interesting to see that we've taken the modals and used them into nouns?)
The question requires that you make a decision between two modals based on the strength of meaning that you think is appropriate--should suggests some flexibility and choice; must is more rigid. The consequences of not doing a "must" are much more severe than the consequences for not doing a "should."
Think of the common phrase used to turn down an invitation--"I would if I could but I can't....so I won't." That's what I mean by system. Playing one word against another; selecting words for just the right level of meaning.
Studies of modal auxiliaries
focus on two major subdivisions based on meaning relationships among the
words and on their use for communication. The first of these subsystems
involves communication about advice and requests and permission.
The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language refers to this
subsystem as the "intrinsic" system; another term used by other scholars
is "root modals." In this example discussion, the student
asks for permission; the advisor responds with a series of modals, moving
from the neutrality of can to the strong requirement of must.
in Session 1 in the lecture on examples, I used the following example
to show how to contextualize the modals. Let's look at the example
again to understand more about the systematic nature of modals and about
the influence of context on their meanings.
When someone asks for advice, we can respond at many different levels. We can give neutral advice about things that are possible (can, may, might); we can give stronger advice based on our own sense of obligations and the "right thing to do" (should); or, we can talk about rules (must).
Notice also that power relationships can influence the use of modal auxiliaries. Who has the right to give rules? Who has the right or the right status to give strong advice? Additionally, the meanings of the modals can change based on cultural values about power relationships. A person in higher authority in the U.S. might very well use a weaker modal that has a much stronger meaning than implied by its dictionary definition. What does a teacher mean when she says: "You might study chapter 4 for the exam." Or, what does a boss mean when she says to a clerk: "You should revise the memo before it is sent." Literal interpretation of these modals could very well lead to problems for the student who doesn't study chapter 4 or the clerk who decides not to revise the memo.
Hinkel (1995) studied differences in the ways that native speaker undergraduates
and ESL students used modals in argumentative writing. She analyzed
the ways that the modals and modal-like words must, have to, ought
to, should, and need to were used to express values in essays
on assigned topics that she labeled “Academics, Politics, Family, Friendships,
Traditions, Patriotism, and Racism.” She found that native and non-native
speakers of English use must, have to, and should in different
contexts. In her conclusion, she provides the following interpretation
of her observations:
an article by Woods on World Englishes, he comments on the use of "hedging"
in academic English. (I've given the link in the reference section
below.) "Hedging" is when we reduce the strength of a generalization--a
kind of appropriate modesty in making academic claims. Rather than
saying "The world is round," we might say something like "Much evidence
suggests that the world might better be described as round rather than
flat." It's not that the writer thinks that the world is not round
but that the proper style is to present all generalizations in contingent
wording. Look at the following quotation from the sociology textbook
that I'm using to find authentic examples. The writer hedges his
generalization first by the use of the adverb perhaps and then
by the use of might. Along with modal auxiliaries, adjectivies
and adverbs as "downtoners"--a feature of English that makes it possible
for speakers and writers to fit our statements to the style required by
Based on this information and on the details presented in the Longman Student Grammar, what do you see as the teaching issues involved with the modal auxiliaries? I see at least the following:
Hinkel, E. (1995). The use of modal verbs as a reflection of cultural values. TESOL Quarterly 29(2), 325-341.
Wood, Alastair. (April, 1997). International scientific English: Some thoughts on science, language and ownership. Science Tribune. [http://www.tribunes.com/tribune/art97/wooda.htm#R22] (accessed 12/21/1999).
Please email me your questions and comments. I look forward to hearing from you and to learning from you in the small group discussion about teaching the modal auxiliaries.