Modals and Exam Date
It’s hard to believe that it is already June, but the calendar does not lie. Consequently, here is another article for you. This article was originally going to be walking you through the best way to write an essay, although it turns out that I wrote more or less the exact same article last year (ignore the exam date in that article, your exam date is Thursday 28 October, starting at 3:00pm (full timetable: Pages – VCE examination timetable (vcaa.vic.edu.au))) (Exam Date and Essay Structures (learnmate.com.au)). Therefore, this article will instead be about one of the most versatile language features that we discuss, modal auxiliary verbs. There are 9 main modal auxiliary verbs, which group nicely into 3 groups of 3, with the simple pneumonic: rhyme, match, triple M.
Rhyme: could, would, should
Match: can, will, shall
Triple M: may, might, must
So, what in the world do these things do:
Now that we have established the words we are talking about, it is now important to discuss what they actually do. Remember, as I have said before and will say again, remember to SPECIFICALLY analyse what modals are doing in a specific text, and the more generic things I mention in this article are a useful guide as to what you should be looking out for and thinking about, but please remember that specificity is vital when you are analysing. Moreover, when you are analysing what a modal is doing, please ensure that you do not define the word as itself. For example, do not say something like, “will,” is used to indicate that an event will occur, but instead explain how it is used to express with a high degree of certainty that an event is going to occur.
This function is slightly different to all the others which I will discuss after this, although modal auxiliary verbs are actually very useful for achieving brevity and succinctness in a text. Whilst this is a function that modals serve almost regardless of where they appear, it is one that is especially useful when they are used to commence a question (usually yes/no). For example, “can you please…” is much more succinct that, “are you please able to…”.
Express degrees of likelihood:
A number of modals such as should, will, may, might, and could, work to express how likely something is. For example, will tends to be used to reflect a high degree of likelihood (also called certainty), whereas may, could, should, and might are all used to reflect lesser degrees of likelihood, and are often used to hedge.
Express ability or permission:
Can and could are frequently used to express that someone has the ability (or is permitted) to do something, and may is commonly used to indicated permission. I don’t think that this requires significant explanation.
I don’t think this requires too much explanation, but must and shall are particularly commonly used when trying to express that someone is obliged to act or refrain from acting in a particular way. Both of these tend to be used to indicate quite high degrees of obligation (actually amounting to compulsion). For example, section 137 of the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic), uses must to indicate that if evidence in a criminal proceeding is more unfairly prejudicial than it is of probative value, the judge is required to exclude it and declare it inadmissible. Moreover, should tends to be used for a slightly lesser degree of obligation, more indicating that a course of action is desirable or strongly preferred, but not necessarily compelled.
When discussing the use of modals in texts, particularly something like terms and conditions, pay attention to how modals are often used to show lopsided degrees of obligation. For example, they may say something like, “patrons must…” indicating that they are under a high degree of obligation, whereas they can also then say something like, “if x occurs, the organiser may do y,” indicating an ability, but lessening the degree of obligation.
This list of purposes is not even close to exhaustive, but remember to pay attention to what they are doing in the SPECIFIC TEXT THAT YOU ARE PROVIDED WITH.
Irrelevant side note to the above, but I found this and thought it would be useful:
I may discuss this article later in the year, but this article by Kate Burridge and Howard Manns about gendered language is really useful, particularly for unit 4 (Shrill, bossy, emotional: why language matters in the gender debate (theconversation.com)). (Notice how I used, “may,” indicating that there is a chance that I write about this article, although I am not making a promise or obliging myself to do it).
Anyway, I hope this article has been useful to you and your understanding of modal auxiliary verbs.
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