METM18 presentation 

‘In the mood?’ The modal verbs ‘shall’, ‘will’, ‘must’, ‘can’, ‘may’ and ‘might’: their usage and abusage in the indicative and subjunctive moods

John Linnegar, Antwerp, Belgium

Authors’ use of these modal verbs is often responsible for poor prose and/or mangled meaning. Because they are certainly prone to misuse by authors, and their incorrect usage is often overlooked by language practitioners – especially those unfortunate enough not to have been taught formal grammar – the nuanced differences in meaning and usage between ‘can’ and ‘will’, ‘can’ and ‘may’ and ‘may’ and ‘might’ need to be spelled out from time to time. The combination of both authors and practitioners not being ‘in the mood’ often results in less than perfect use of these modals, and inaccurate or ambiguous messaging. Those who work in English as a second or foreign language will find this session’s content particularly instructive. Because under the influence of the Plain Language Movement the function of some of these modals has changed in certain contexts (e.g. formal writing, legal texts), each will be described in detail and illustrated in pertinent sentences to illustrate their current usage. Finally, the EU has laid down its preferred usage of some of these modals, and it will be shared with those who attend this session.

The attendees will be shown appropriate examples of usage on PowerPoint slides together with a handout, which will also include a brief exercise (‘spot the incorrect usage’) that will be completed during the session, making it fairly interactive.

Those practitioners who feel a need to ‘brush up’ on modal verbs, or for whom their use is an Achilles heel, should find this presentation worthwhile; they will certainly leave with some concrete examples to refer to while writing, translating or editing.

To my knowledge, this topic has not been dealt with in extenso at the last three METMs, so 2018 seems an appropriate time to air it.

About the presenter

A former teacher of English, John Linnegar has been a language practitioner for more than 35 years, with English as his mother tongue. During that time, he published Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them (Pharos, 2009, 2013) and Text Editing: A handbook for students and practitioners (UPA, Brussels, 2012), and co-authored Oxford English grammar: The advanced guide (OUP, 2015). He considers himself fortunate indeed to have been given a firm foundation in formal grammar (plus Latin and German!) at school. To this day, English grammar and usage is one of his passions, as evidenced by his extensive library on the subject.