Sunday, June 24, 2007

What is a Modal?

Yesterday, I wrote a little about the modal “should” and the false modal “had better.” But what is the definition of modals and how are they used?

Modals are words like “can,” “must,” “will,” “should,” “might,” etc. There are actually a lot more than this little list. Azar’s, Understanding and Using English Grammarhas a great table of modals with different tenses and explanations of how they are used. I always make a copy of this for my ESL students.

When I explain modals to my students, I tell them that they are words that change the “mood” of a verb. I often use these examples:

I eat cake. (In this sentence, we have the simple present tense of the verb “eat.”
I will eat cake. (“Will” here has two functions: a prediction for the future and also I’m expressing my determination to do something.)
I must eat cake. (Perhaps I’m expressing my desperation here!)
I should eat cake. (I’m giving some advice to myself.)
I might eat cake. (Maybe I’ll have some cake and maybe I won’t. I don’t know.)

On paper, you might need the explanations for the meanings that these modals convey. But when you are speaking to your student, you can speak the modals with the feelings or moods that they convey. This usually helps the student to understand the meaning. Of course, I then have them practice modals with other verbs. (It’s just that I work in a coffee shop with great desserts, so I’m always thinking about eating cake!)



dan cristancho said...

thanks deb, that was really helpful. I like the part about 'changing the mood of a verb'. that's pretty much spot on.

terry lodge said...

very simple and to the point!! which is exactly the way it should be done. thanks a lot, youve helped untangle my brain in a matter of seconds!!!