Author Topic: The nitty-gritty of the usage of the English modals - I  (Read 3232 times)

Joe Carillo

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The nitty-gritty of the usage of the English modals - I
« on: December 20, 2014, 12:53:00 AM »
A government officer, Edwin Bellen, requested me recently to take up the proper usage of the function words “will” and “would,” “shall” and “should,” and “can” and “could.” He presented five sentence constructions for checking if they are using those words correctly.


Before plunging into the nitty-gritty of their usage, I would like to emphasize that those three word-pairs are not meant for sentences that deal with simple facts or absolute certainties. They are distinct grammatical forms called modal auxiliaries or modals, which work with verbs to convey various shades of necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission, possibility, or conditionality.

“Will” and “would.” The usual function of “will,” as we know, is as a verbal auxiliary for expressing simple futurity, as in “Evelyn will go to Tokyo tomorrow.” As a modal, however, “will” works to convey choice, willingness, intention, consent, or habitual or customary action. Choice: “I will take the train instead of the bus.” Willingness: “I will go if you wish.” Intention: “I will prove you wrong.” Consent: “Yes, the school will admit you.” Habitual or customary action: “She will get angry over trivial things.”

The modal “will” inflects to “would” in the past tense.  Choice: “That year, I would fly first class rather than economy.” Willingness: “In my mid-twenties, I would go wherever I was assigned.” Habitual or customary action: “After breaking up with her fiancé, Joanna would get angry over trivial things.”

In conditional sentences, the modal “would” works to express probability or presumption in both past and present, as in “The marathon runner would have won if he had not stumbled right before the finish line” and “That overambitious politician would win hands down if not for the very serious corruption allegations against him.”

Also, the modal “would” conveys politeness and deference in expressing intent or desire, as in “Would you consider my daughter for that overseas job?” Compare this with the rather pointed request conveyed when the modal “will” is used: “Will you consider my daughter for that overseas job?”  

Now let’s see if “will” and “would” are used correctly in this first sentence presented by Mr. Bellen: “Will it rain tomorrow? If it wouldn’t, would it be a sunny day?”

Note that the first question uses “will” as a verbal auxiliary to express simple futurity. In contrast, the second question is a conditional construction where (a) the “if”-clause uses the modal “wouldn’t” to express negative possibility, and (b) where the result clause also uses the modal “would” to express expectation of a desired outcome in question form. All three usages are correct.  

Let’s examine Mr. Bellen’s second sentence: “I will bet that Miss A. would win over Mr. B. who surely will not get even 10 per cent of the votes.”

In “I will bet…”, the modal “will” is used to convey intention; in “…that Miss A. would win over Mr. B.”, the modal “would” is used to convey a highly probable expectation; and in “Mr. B. who surely will not get even 10 per cent of the votes,” the modal “will” is used to convey strong certainty in the outcome. All three modal usages are correct.

“Shall” and “should.”  In American English (the English used in the Philippines), the modals “shall” and “should” are used sparingly to state polite questions (suggestive that permission is being asked) in the first-person, as in “Shall we leave now, gentlemen?” and “Should I get a taxi for you now, ma’am?” More commonly, the modal “shall” is used in formal written directives and records of corporate proceedings, as in “All workers shall be responsible for the upkeep of their respective work areas” and “The Corporate Secretary shall lead the Company’s compliance efforts with respect to regulatory developments.”

We will take up “can” and could” and conclude this discussion in next week’s column.

This first part of the discussion originally appeared in Jose A. Carillo’s weekly column “English Plain and Simple” in the print edition of The Manila Times, December 13, 2014 issue, © 2014 by Manila Times Publishing.
« Last Edit: January 14, 2017, 02:04:39 AM by Joe Carillo »