Use Modal Verbs With Care

By Maeve Maddox

English, like other Germanic languages, makes use of a special class of verbs called modals: can, dare, may, must , need, ought, shall, will.

Modals serve useful functions in expressing various tenses, moods, and conditions, but they can have an insidious effect on one’s writing.

The topics I write about most–English usage and education–are modal minefields.
It’s difficult to express opinions about these topics without falling prey to words like must, should, need, and ought.

Ex. Politicians must do this. Teachers ought to do that. Speakers should say this.

Modals tend to cut off discussion. They close the subject. They create resentment and hostility. Consciously or unconsciously the reader wonders, Why must I? Why should I? Why ought I? Few people enjoy being told what to do in an imperious manner.

Modals leap onto the page when we feel strongly about a subject. The challenge to the writer is to find words that will convey the importance of an idea without hitting the reader over the head with modals. Instead of telling your readers what they ought to do, look for words that lead them to embrace the ideas you are presenting.

Conclusion: Writers should avoid modal verbs in their writing.

OOPS!

Writers achieve greater clarity and offend fewer readers by avoiding modal verbs in their writing.

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11 Responses to “Use Modal Verbs With Care”

  • Cine Cynic

    I’m enjoying your articles a lot, Maeve. You should write as often as possible. Oops!

  • PreciseEdit

    We often run across sentences similar to “To help more children read, politicians SHOULD allocate more money to schools.” We revise these by placing “can” or “will” after the subject, as in, “Politicians can . . . .” The rest of the sentence falls into place easily. Then we remove “can” or “will.”

    Using this little trick, we get, “Politicians help more children read by allocating more money to schools.” Another revision, nearly identical to the first, is, “By allocating more money to schools, politicians help more children read.”

    On the other hand, if the text is about children reading and not about the political process, we might place the “can” or “will” after children, to get, “More children will read when politicians allocate more funds to schools.”

    Some people like telling others what they should or should not do. Instead of telling our clients “You should not write in that manner,” we tell them, “That tone in writing is generally inappropriate for formal writing.” Our philosophy is “Leave the preaching to the preachers.”

  • Scribbler

    This is a glaring weakness in my writing that I was unaware of until I read this post. Thankyou, I now have hours of work ahead of me re-editing my work. 😉

  • Peter

    PreciseEdit: seems to me you’re missing a few “not”s in your examples somewhere 🙂

  • Norina

    I usually replace the word SHOULD with COULD, because for me, SHOULD indicates that one is doing something wrong, and I don’t feel that I am in a position to tell anyone what I feel they’ve said or done is wrong (in minor cases at least). Could is merely a suggestion. Is that preaching? Sometimes it is necessary to use certain words to get a point across.

  • PreciseEdit

    Ideas are stronger when expressed as facts and not as opinions.

    Using the examples above:

    “Writers should avoid modal verbs in their writing.” (This is preaching, and it is offensive.)

    “Writers achieve greater clarity and offend fewer readers by avoiding modal verbs in their writing.” (This is stated as a fact, and it is more compelling to readers, i.e., more likely to produce the desired response by your readers.)

    “Could”: This is hedging, but “could” may be appropriate in some cases. Choose a tone that is appropriate for your relationship with the reader and the support you have for your argument. If you are in a position to instruct or advise your reader, and if you have a good reason for your idea, you will find that using the strategies above will be superior to “could.”

  • richard

    Dear Sir

    I should write more but I always put it off. This use of the model form must be acceptable when mildly rebuking myself. I’m not offending anyone but myself.
    OOPS
    It is acceptable when mildlly………

    Always enjoy your articles! you MUST write more. OOPS….or here I want to encourage you

  • Evelyn Lim

    I refrain from using words like “you should” or “you must” in the articles I write on self improvement. I prefer to replace them “you may consider” or “it may be a good idea to”. Readers should be allowed the option of free choice in their decisions.

  • Ntapo ND- SA

    I prefer using should and could in my writing because these modals, I think, still provide the reader with a sense of freedom of choice. E.g. Perhaps you should consider jumping ship or crossing the floor. Had I used “must” it could have appeared as an instruction.

  • Peter Heldorf

    Maeve, I’ve recently come across this web site and find it very helpful.
    In your piece “Use Modal Verbs With Care” I noticed in the second paragraph you use of – “in expressing” as in: “Modals serve useful functions in expressing various tenses, moods, and conditions ………” My question: Is the sentence not stronger if “to express” is used rather than “in expressing”?
    I see this passive form of verbs proliferating in my daily reading of non fiction – and it’s beginning to frustrate me.
    What’s you view on this?

    Regards from Australia, Peter

  • Erica

    I thought that the judicious use of modal verbs like should etc. was supposed to be a useful tool in fiction for deepening point of view. You’re inserting judgement into a sentence. I’s often recommended as a technique for making first person or limited third narrative less filtered and more immediate.

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