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Describing language
Describing language

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3.3 How modal auxiliaries can add nuance

Consider the difference between an advertisement that claims a new face cream will help to reduce wrinkles versus one that may help to reduce wrinkles. Which option is the company promoting the face cream more likely to use? Why might they choose to hedge their bets and go with may help to?

Language doesn’t only deal with facts. It allows us to think and talk and write about things we’re not sure about, things that might not happen, and about possibility and desirability.

Activity 5 What can modal auxiliaries tell us?

Timing: This activity should take around 10 minutes

Look at these sentences:

  1. Robin Hood lived in Nottingham.
  2. There is life on other planets.
  3. The economy is going to crash.
  4. People are kind to their neighbours.

They are written as if they are facts: each just states that something is the case. But each of those statements can be questioned. Add modal auxiliaries to the main verb to make them more plausible or realistic:

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  1. Robin Hood may have lived in Nottingham.
  2. There might be life on other planets.
  3. The economy could be going to crash.
  4. People should be kind to their neighbours.

These are not the only possible answers. For example, might and may are interchangeable here with little difference in meaning. Again, depending on your point of view, must is a possible answer in sentence 4. Which modal auxiliary you choose depends a lot on opinion and point of view.