Teaching Modals

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    Although modality is one of the richest and most intriguing domains that English grammar

    offers to researchers and linguists, its study has not preoccupied grammarians until

    recently. Out of the many that have studied the modal verbs, some names should be

    mentioned: traditional ones like Jespersen (1931) and Poutsma (1926); structuralists and

    transformationalists like Hoffman (1966) and Huddlestone (1971), McCawley (1971),

    Kartunnen (1972) etc. Being such an intriguing and rich domain for linguists makes it a

    real challenge for applied linguists, especially teachers.

    In the present paper, I propose to approach this field both from the perspective of pure

    linguistics and from that of applied linguistics. This two-fold approach is justified, for, in

    order to tackle the methodological issues associated to modal verbs, one has to clearly

    understand the linguistic (syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic) aspects of modality.

    The theoretical part of the paper comprises three chapters dealing with:

    I. THE CONCEPT OF MODALITY, which is divided in three subparts:

    A. What is modality, which is an attempt to define modality through the filters of F.R.

    Palmer, Cornilescu and Chitoran, Downing and Locke, Elena Bara. Palmer views modality

    across languages, Cornilescu and Chitoran look at it in relation with logic, whereas for

    Downing and Locke, the crucial word is relation i.e. the relation modality holds with

    reality. Other important defining notions are speaker and attitude, that are discussed by E.


    The modal expressions are also described in this subpart.

    B. Features of modality, which is an evaluation of the three characteristics of modality:

    ambiguity (the fact that most modal verbs have double meaning: epistemic and deontic),


  • subjectivity (implied by the fact that the modal verbs express an attitude of the speaker),

    scalarity (the fact that modal verbs are ordered on two scales: deontic and epistemic).

    C. Types of modality comprises the two basic types: deontic and epistemic. Etymology,

    definition and explanation concerning these terms are given.



    A. Grammatical status of the English modal verbs which is considered from two

    perspectives: syntactic (modal verbs are part of the inflection) and morphologic (they are

    regarded as semi-auxiliary verbs, i.e. in between auxiliary and full verbs).

    B. Characteristics of the English modal verbs refer to their syntactic traits ( they are

    followed by the bare infinitive, cannot occur in non-finite functions, have no s form for 3rd

    person singular, present simple tense, their past forms can be used to refer to present and

    future time plus the so-called NICE properties).

    C. A classification of the English modal verbs ranges all of these verbs on a scale from

    central modals to main verbs.

    III. THE MEANINGS OF THE ENGLISH MODAL VERBS are presented not in the

    old-fashioned way (a list of verbs and their meanings), but from a functional point of

    view, i.e. the modal verbs are listed under two headings: epistemic and deontic that, in turn,

    have such subheadings as certainty, probability, possibility, etc

    The second part comes to counterbalance the first one with four chapters and is concerned

    mainly with teaching the modal verbs.

    CHAPTER IV contains two subparts:

    A. Preliminary considerations on teaching grammar is designed to offer an answer to the questions: Why should we learn grammar? and How should we learn it? A quite

    surprising distinction is made by H.G. Widdowson between the traditional way of

    teaching grammar (medium view) and the (post)modern one (mediation view).

    B. What it takes to do the job? refers to what ingredients a grammar lesson needs in order to be successful.


    uses the framework of Grammar Translation Method in order to present four lessons for


  • four levels of proficiency: beginner, lower-intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced. The

    materials that helped to the creation of the lesson plans can be found as photocopies at the

    end of the paper in annexes 1, 2, 3, and 4. A critical appraisal of the techniques and

    activities involved in the process of teaching can be found at the end of the chapter.


    VERBS shares the structure of the previous chapter but the framework is replaced by the

    Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. The gains and losses of this shift are

    evaluated at the end of the chapter. Besides that, at the very end of the chapter, the

    importance of language functions and their place in language teaching, and also the role of

    modal verbs within language functions, are shown as a source and motivation for the

    communicative approach to teaching the English modal verbs.


    VERBS uses as source samples of errors in testpapers belonging to Romanian students.

    The sources of these errors, that coincide with the expected difficulties, are linked to:

    The syntactic features of the modal verbs

    The meanings of the modal verbs


    Substitution of a modal expression for a modal verb.

    Whoever is interested in overcoming these difficulties will find the solution in this last

    chapter of the current paper.

    Each type, meaning or use of the English modal verbs is illustrated with examples. Where

    necessary for the purpose of the analysis, a translation of the examples is provided.

    Another reason for the present study is the disparity in prominence of Romanian and

    English modality (the Romanian modal verbs being less prominent than their English

    counterpart), a fact which often causes difficulties in teaching the English modal verbs to

    Romanian students, and in understanding and acquiring the modal system of English.

    To conclude, this paper will provide an analysis and synthesis of the methodological

    aspects linked with the English modal verbs in terms of the what (what we teach when it

    comes to modal verbs) and the how (how we teach/should teach the English modal verbs).


  • 6


    To resume the idea in the end of the Introduction and to bridge it with the matter of this

    first chapter, I have to make a slight digression.

    The concept of intertextuality has come to designate for literary critics what people have

    always known or intuited: the fact that all the literature mankind has produced is actually a

    re-writing of some original scenarios, facts, events. From this perspective, it appears that

    no writer has brought any new contribution to the development of literature; moreover, this

    would entail that literary development is zero, and that we are, again from a literary point

    of view, right in the point where we started thousands of years ago. We, i.e. the Western

    civilization, started with the Bible. As its name etymologically shows, that was no ordinary

    book, but the Book, or rather a Book of books (, pl. of a paper, scroll, letter, dim. of the inner part of a papyrus, bark, book made of this bark).And if the Bible incorporates all the books that preceded it or were its contemporaries, or

    were written after its production, then we have to ask ourselves why we still read all these

    books, when it would be so simple to read only the Bible as the ultimate synthesis of

    everything that has ever been written. But we know by now that what distinguishes books

    from one another is not the what (i.e. what they deal with, the subject they narrate or

    approach), but the how (i.e. the way the subject is narrated or approached, the perspective).

    Modality is central to the how of the history, of literature, of our civilization. And the how

    is central to defining the concept of modality.

    How we teach the concept of modality may have a great impact on our students, and may

    help them or not in understanding and communicating in real-life situations. That is why it

    is important for a teacher of English to possess and clearly understand himself/herself the

    English modal verbs on which this paper solely focuses out of all the expressions of



  • A. What is modality?

    In his book Mood and Modality, F.R. Palmer tries to give a comprehensive definition of

    modality; he approaches modality across languages. His argument is that, although there

    appears to be considerable variation and no one-to-one correspondence across languages, it

    may be that there is some basic or prototypical feature, that is, in essence, the same for all

    languages. But throughout his study, F.R. Palmer will come to realize that, despite the fact

    that there is evidence that different languages have a great deal in common, modality

    evinces great variation in meaning across languages and it lacks a clear, basic feature. The

    notion of prototypicality, taken over by Palmer from Hopper and Thompson, is difficult,

    if not impossible, to apply. Even at the formal grammatical level, grammaticalization is a

    matter of degree, of more or less rather than yes or no. Take for instance the modal

    verbs of French, which are far less easily distinguished from other verbs than are the moda