Writing in English – modal verbs

I’ve subscribed to a newsfeed from the excellent writing site: dailywritingtips.com – they post short, pithy articles about writing in English.

This is a copy of one I read this week and useful for those of us committed to teaching our modals correctly! This is copied straight from the site (I hope they don’t mind).

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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: