Use Modal Verbs With Care
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.
Writers achieve greater clarity and offend fewer readers by avoiding modal verbs in their writing.
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