1.5 Modality

5. Modality

Modal verbs should always be highly prized finds in any text, telling us a great deal about just what that text’s author is all about.

Modality is all about the encoding of different degrees of subjective response in the viewpoint of a speaker/writer.


Modality is a general term which describes unrealized states and possible conditions and the forms of language which encode them.


Modality is about communicating contrasting attitudes in the speaker or author of a text.

Compare the following sentences:

a)      It happened on Wednesday night.

b)      It did happen on Wednesday night.

c)      It certainly did happen on Wednesday night.

d)      It should have happened on Wednesday night.

e)      It might have happened on Wednesday night.

f)        Apparently, it happened on Wednesday night.


So there are many different ways of signalling modality.

Modality is normally conveyed by modal verbs, such as “must”, “can”, “may”, “will”, “should”, “could”.

The function of the modal verbs is to reflect our judgement about whether what we say or write is true.

Texts can have modes of reassurance or modes of possibility or modes of obligation or modes of necessity or modes of prediction or modes of permission or modes of volition or modes of ability or Mixed modes, where any of these modes can mix with any other as a text seeks to hide its purpose or has more than one purpose.

What do these modes look like? Using the following modal verbs:


Mode of Possibility…                 Everyone can make mistakes.

Mode of Ability…                       Can you remember?

Mode of Permission…                Can we go now?            (Compare – Could we go now?)



Mode of Possibility…                 You may be right.

Mode of Permission …               You may use my pen.

                                                May we come in?          (Compare – Might we come in?)


Mode of Necessity…                  There must be some mistake.

Mode of Obligation…                  We must wear our uniforms.


Mode of Prediction…                  Oil will float on water.

Mode of Volition…                      We won’t stay long. (our intention to act)


Mode of Prediction …                 Shall I win the election.

Mode of Volition …                     What shall we do this evening?


Mode of Obligation…                  You should do as you’re told.    

Mode of Liklihood …                   It should rain after lunch.


Also, there are certain expressions such as “be bound to” and “ought to” which can equally express mode, as can phrases such as “It is certain” or “I don’t know” or “it could be considered that”, and verbs such as “it seems” or “it appears”

Also, Adverbs such as Perhaps, Generally, Apparently, etc can affect a text’s mode.

Texts don’t tend to be dominated by modes, but consist of mixed modes:

We won’t stay a moment longer. We really should be going, seeing as it’s so late and you’ve yet to put the kids to bed. Besides, we must be up early tomorrow morning and you will appreciate the extra few minutes in bed.

Continue the following prose fiction text in the same style, trying to use as many modal verbs as possible (as well as other means of indicating modality) to indicate subtle shades of meaning.

I really shouldn’t have done it. He might have been bloody annoying and he certainly was asking for it, but that doesn’t mean that my actions are justifiable in a court of law. That judge looking down on me later will be…

Swap texts – identify how mode has been indicated and how the text’s character/narrator as has been communicated (thus figuring out just what the text’s author is up to).

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