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Concourse 2

Modality without modal auxiliary verbs

modality

It is probably verifiable that there is no necessity to use a modal auxiliary verb to express modality (so it's avoidable).
It may be the case that you don't have to use a modal auxiliary verb to express modality (but you can).

All the words in black express some form of modality.  This guide is concerned with ones like those in the first sentence, i.e., words which express modality of some sort (obligation, deduction etc.) but which are not modal auxiliary verbs (as in the second sentence).

It would be helpful but not essential if you follow the general guide to types of modality before tackling this one.  If the terms deontic, epistemic, dynamic and alethic modality mean little to you, then it is almost essential to do so.

Website alert:
caution

This is a poorly understood area.  Some websites will seek to persuade you that, for example, the word just in something like
    I'll just talk to him
is a modal adverb.
It isn't, of course; it's a downtoner and working in the same way as thousands of other adverbs may be used to modify lexical verbs.  Here we are concerned to analyse those words which really do work as modality carriers in one way or another.  An example of a true modal adverb is the word fairly as in, e.g.:
    I'm fairly certain I know him.
and there will be many more examples in what follows.


three

Three classes of modal words

There are examples of all three of these in the first sentence above:

  1. probably: an adverb (an epistemic use to do with the certainty of something being true)
  2. verifiable and avoidable: adjectives (the first is epistemic, the second deontic, expressing a lack of obligation)
  3. necessity: a noun (a deontic use)

A fourth class of modal words which are not modal auxiliary verbs will be discussed here.  These are sometimes known as marginal modal auxiliary verbs and include, for example, be about to.  They are not semi-modal auxiliary verbs, of course.


eye

Perceptions of reality

As you will know if you have a grasp of modality at all, modal expressions relate to the speaker / writer's view of reality.  Non-modal auxiliary verb modality is no exception.

Perceptions of reality concern:

A great many of the ways we use to express modality without using modal auxiliary verbs are adverbs and/or adjuncts and disjuncts.  A fair few are, however, adjectives and a significant number are nouns.  Many are derived or derivable from verbs or from each other.


variety

The variety of non-modal-verb modal expressions

Some examples will help to define the area, some simple, some not so simple.

Example Type of modality Alternative modal-verb expression Notes
As a matter of fact, it's your turn to wash up epistemic and deontic You ought to wash up The adjunct As a matter of fact expresses the speaker's view of the truth of the statement.
The noun phrase your turn expresses the speaker's view of another's obligation.
I was unavoidably delayed by the need to see the doctor deontic I had to see the doctor so couldn't help being late The adverb unavoidably and the modal noun need both express the speaker's view of the level of obligation.
I don't dispute that you think you saw a unicorn but it appears unlikely to me epistemic You may think you saw a unicorn but you couldn't have The verb dispute in the negative expresses the speaker's surety that you are telling the truth but the copular verb appears with its adjective complement unlikely expresses the speaker's doubt.
Technically, that's undeniable epistemic It might well be true The disjunct technically expresses the speaker's viewpoint and the adjective undeniable expresses a degree of certainty.
I assure you that I am totally certain to get it finished epistemic and dynamic I'll definitely be able to finish The speaker is expressing certainty, with the verb assure, the adverb totally and the adjective certain and the whole sentence refers to personal ability and is, therefore, dynamic modality.
Hypothetically, much of what is suggested is possibly verifiable but there's an undoubted need for more evidence epistemic and deontic It might be true but we must have more evidence The disjunct hypothetically expresses the speaker's uncertainty of the truth of a suggestion and the verb suggest itself adds more uncertainty.  The adjective phrase possibly verifiable adds weight to the uncertainty.
The noun phrase undoubted need expresses a strong obligation.
He's inevitably arrived by now epistemic He must have arrived by now The adverb inevitably expresses the firm deduction.
I am willing to do that dynamic I can do that The verb will may express either futurity or volition (willingness).  Here, it expresses the latter.
Are you able to come? dynamic Can you come? The adjective able is very commonly used instead of the modal auxiliary can.

Here's an incomplete list of the ways modality can be achieved in English without the use of modal auxiliary verbs.
Note, though, as in some of the examples above, these are often used in conjunction with modal auxiliary verbs to heighten or diminish the strength of what is being said / written.
We can get, therefore, examples such as:
    I'm sure he must be aware of that
    It's manifestly the case that he can't do the job
    It is essential that he must do that

etc.

Modality Verb Adjunct / Conjunct / Disjunct Adjective Noun Notes Examples
epistemic
(more sure)
assure
observe
manifest
prove
show
avoid
deny
doubt
undermine
verify
actually
as a matter of fact
assuredly
certainly
clearly
definitely
doubtlessly
evidently
in fact
in point of fact
incontestably
indisputably
indubitably
ineluctably
inescapably
inevitably
literally
manifestly
observably
obviously
patently
plainly
statistically
sure
technically
totally
transparently
truly
unarguably
unavoidably
undeniably
undoubtedly
unquestionably
verifiably
actual
factual
believable
certain
evident
incontestable
indisputable
indubitable
ineluctable
inescapable
inevitable
literal
manifest
observable
obvious
patent
plain
statistical
sure
technical
total
transparent
true
unarguable
unavoidable
undeniable
undoubted
unquestionable
verifiable
assurance
belief
certainty
incontestability
indisputability
indubitability
ineluctability
inevitability
observation
unavoidability
verifiability
The items heighten the sense of certainty.
Some work in a way similar to the use of must, cannot or should to express logical deduction of a fact.
Adjectives used in this way can be nuanced with the use of a variety of copular verbs:
It is unquestionable, seems unquestionable, appears unarguable etc.
This is the actual bed that the Queen slept in
It is actually more difficult than you think
That is incontestably the result
It is statistically the case that
A sure outcome is disaster
His dishonesty is a transparent fact
I do not deny that
Plainly, that is not the case.
epistemic
(less sure)
allege
appear
argue
believe
credit
debate
defend
dispute
hypothesise

allegedly
apparently
arguably
at first glance
at first sight
believably
conceivably
credibly
debatably
defensibly
disputably
fairly
hypothetically
loosely
ostensibly
perhaps
plausibly
positively
possibly
presumably
probably
purportedly
putatively
quite
rather
really
reportedly
reputedly
scarcely
seemingly
surely
without (a) doubt
alleged
apparent
arguable
conceivable
credible
debatable
defensible
disputable
hypothetic
likely
ostensible
plausible
positive
possible
presumable
probable
purported
putative
really
reported
reputed
rumoured
scarcely
seeming
sure
unlikely
allegation
appearance
argument
debate
defence
dispute
evidence
hypothesis
likelihood
possibility
probability
rumour
The items weaken the truth of the statement and function in the way that may or might are used to express uncertainty.  Compare, e.g., They may be related.
Adjectives used in this way can be nuanced with the use of a variety of copular verbs:
It is disputable, seems unlikely, appears credible
etc.
He is allegedly very rich
The alleged terrorist was arrested
That's an allegation I deny
At first glance, they seem related
It's conceivable that the facts are connected
It's my belief that he's French
You say so but it's debatable, of course
Loosely, it's a kind of short circuit
There's a rumour that he's married
deontic allow
approve
authorise
command
compel
conform
force
instruct
let
need
obey
oblige
order
permit
tell
tolerate
compulsorily
necessarily
needlessly
obligatorily
pointlessly
unnecessarily
compulsory
essential
liable
necessary
needless
obligatory
permissible
unnecessary
compulsion
force
conformity
necessity
need
obligation
permission
There are fewer deontic expressions but they work in the same way as verbs like should, ought to, must and have to. She's obliged to stay
It's needlessly complicated
I command obedience
I was compelled to join
dynamic accomplish
achieve
collapse
demonstrate
die
fail
flourish
manage
offer
propose
prosper
show
succeed
thrive
work
ably
(in)effectively
fruitfully
fruitlessly
(un)productively
(un)successfully
*(un)able
(in)effective
fruitful
fruitless
(un)productive
(un)successful
ability
accomplishment
achievement
demonstration
failure
success
There are fewer dynamic expressions because this is an area where modal auxiliary verbs are often preferred.  They include:
can(not), could, be able / unable to.
The experiment accomplished its aims
The data demonstrated the success of the approach
The organisms survived and flourished
The program works insofar as ...
alethic compel
conform
force
involve
mean
need
obey
oblige
permit
compulsorily
of necessity
inescapably
inevitably
necessarily
unavoidably
inescapable
necessary
required
unavoidable
constraint
fact
falsehood
law
necessity
prerequisite
principle
requirement
truth
There are fewer alethic expressions because this is an area where modal auxiliary verbs are often preferred.  They include:
cannot (negative only)
must (positive only).
A prerequisite for inclusion in the survey was ...
The principle underlying the categorisation is ...
One unavoidable constraint is ...
By the laws of physics ...
Of necessity, ...

* The adjective (un)able is very commonly used to express dynamic modality in the past and future as well as the present because the verb can is defective having only could as a restricted-use past form and no future form with will at all.
If you would like to have that table as a PDF document, click here.


connections

Collocation and colligation

Collocation, as you are probably aware, refers to the tendency for certain words to co-occur.  Colligation refers to the fact that certain sets of words tend to co-occur with certain grammatical structures.

  1. Collocation
    Because these expressions involve verbs, adverbs, adjectives and nouns, it is rich ground for collocational phenomena.
    1. verb + noun, for example:
      1. You can't
            *prove the belief
        but you can
            prove the verifiability
        of something.
      2. You can't
            *debate the argument
        but you can
        debate the evidence
    2. adverb + adjective, for example:
      1. We can allow
            an arguably probable outcome
        but not
            *a debatably disputable argument
      2. We can't have
            *a necessarily needless action
        but we can allow
            a necessarily essential action
    3. adjective + noun, for example:
      1. We can have
            a manifest belief
        but not
            *a debatable rumour
      2. We allow
            needless force
        but not
            *obligatory compulsion
  2. Colligation
    Grammatically, many of these expressions behave rather differently.  For example,
    1. It is possible to say
      1. They allowed him to go
        but
        ?They allowed him to understand
        is a very rare construction because verbs like these (permit, allow, convince etc.) require dynamic uses of verbs as their complements.
    2. Nouns like consequence or outcome are almost always found in the subject position so things like
      1. The consequence is predictable
        are quite common but
        ?It resulted in the consequence
        sounds unusual and clumsy.
    3. We can have
      1. It is likely he'll be late
        It is probable he'll be late

        and we allow
        He is likely to be late
        but
        *He is probable to be late
        is not permitted by the rules of English structure.
    4. Verbs of compulsion and permission are also tricky.  We can have
      1. They made me go
        and
        They allowed me to go
        but in the passive these become
        I was made to go
        and
        I was allowed to go
        with an intrusive and non-intuitive to-infinitive for the verb make
      2. It's fine to have
        They let him stay
        but an attempt to make a passive from that fails because it gives the unacceptable
        *He was let to stay.

These expressions must, therefore, be presented with co-text as well as context if our learners are going to have the data to allow them to produce colligationally and collocationally acceptable English.


marginal

Marginal modal auxiliary verbs

These are sometimes called semi- or quasi-auxiliary verbs.

In addition to the verbs in the second column of the main table above, a number of verb phrases are often used to express modality.  The meanings of many of them are covered in the guide to semi- and marginal modal auxiliary verbs, linked below, but here's a short list with a few examples of their use.

Verb phrase Type of modality Example
be to deontic You are to come at 6
be certain / sure to epistemic He's certain to be late
be meant to deontic I'm meant to be at a meeting
be due to epistemic The problem is due to the damp
be about to dynamic I'm about to get the train
be forced to deontic I was forced to leave
be supposed to deontic You aren't supposed to be here
be bound to epistemic It's bound to rain
alethic Increasing the size of a sealed containing is bound to lower the pressure of the gas within it
be likely to epistemic He's likely to get annoyed
mean to dynamic I mean to talk to him
seem to epistemic It seems to be broken
tend to dynamic We tend to stay at home now

Nearly all these meanings can be encoded using semi- or central modal auxiliary verbs, of course, but some subtlety is lost in the process.
We can add be able to to that list, too, because it is a very common adjectival way of expressing dynamic modality.


shades

Shades of meaning

For reasons which are historic more than rational, many teachers compel their learners to express their perceptions using modal auxiliary verbs rather than any other device.  We get, therefore the admonition, for example, not to say:
    Perhaps he is her brother
but to formulate that as:
    He may / might / could be her brother

For learners whose first languages exhibit few or even no modal auxiliary verbs, that may be initially helpful.  What is not in doubt is that it can also be restrictive and inhibiting.
It is clear from the above that using adverbs, adjectives and nouns to express modality allows for a great deal more in terms of subtle shades of meaning than the use of a handful of modal auxiliary verbs.
For example, it is difficult, using a modal auxiliary verb to convey the senses embodied in:
    That's your opinion although I find it disputable (which is not at all what's meant by, e.g., You may be right)
    It's observably the case that she is becoming more demanding (which is not at all what's meant by She must be becoming more demanding)
    I feel an obligation to him (which is almost impossible to render with a modal auxiliary verb such as need, should, ought to etc.)
and so on.


written

Spoken and written language

It is often averred that modal auxiliary verbs are more common in spoken than in written language.
That is true but the more important issue is why it should be true.  Here's part of the answer.

In speaking, we have a number of quasi-linguistic resources to hand, not least of which are stress, tone, pitch and intonation.  We can, for example, easily vary the meaning of:
    I should be at a meeting (so I'm going)
to make it
    I should be at a meeting (but I'm not going)
by stressing the modal auxiliary verb and using a rising intonation along the sentence.
The same trick can be performed with the whole range of modal auxiliary verbs in English (and any other language).

In writing, no such resources apart from using bold, Romance or underlined fonts are available to us and in any formal kind of writing these are themselves severely restricted.  Hence the need for a wide range of verbs, adjuncts, adjectives and marginal modal expressions to capture a more exact sense of what we mean.
In academic writing, this becomes seriously important because the difference between
    It is a verifiable fact
    It is arguable that
    It is transparently the case that
    There is some evidence that

etc.
is very important if the wrong message is not to be sent.
Relying on the narrow range of modal auxiliary verbs available in English would mean that an academic writer may easily be misunderstood.  For example, stating:
    It must be the case that
when what is meant is:
    It is a defensible conclusion that
would be perilous.


taeching

Teaching non-modal auxiliary verb modality

There are clearly some issues:

Level
level
Many of the non-modal-verb ways of expressing modal ideas are teachable and learnable at quite low levels.  For example:
    It is possible that ... / Possibly, ...
    It is likely that ... / There's a good likelihood that ...
    It is probably that ... / Probably, ...
    It is sure that ... / Surely, ...
    They made me do it
    She allowed me to go

etc. are all accessible to lower-level learners.
However, other items are much more demanding:
    Without a shadow of a doubt ...
    Conceivably, but not verifiably ...
    Some dispute the truth of the hypothesis
    I was compelled to conform
    In conformity with your wishes ...

are clearly left to later stages and to higher-level learners.
Be selective, therefore.
Avoidance
avoid
It is probably true that learners whose first languages have a restricted range of modal auxiliaries are sometimes reluctant to use them and prefer expressions such as:
    Perhaps, she'll come to the party (instead of She might come to the party)
or
    That is probably not true (instead of That may well not be true)
However, the attempt to force expressions with modal auxiliary verbs instead is probably, a) doomed and b) unhelpful.
The fact is that non-modal auxiliary verb expressions are very common and carry more or less subtle meanings which cannot easily be expressed with a modal auxiliary verb.  There is no good reason to suppose that they are somehow inferior.
Type of modality
four
In the large table above, the effort has been made to divide the expressions into the two main types of modality, epistemic, relating to the truth of a proposition and deontic, relating to the degree of obligation.
Not to do this when selecting items for teaching or explaining meaning is perverse and bewildering for learners.  All types of modality can be expressed using these sorts of expressions:
    Deontic modality: I feel obliged to tell you that ...
    Epistemic modality: It is clear to her that ...
    Dynamic modality: I mean to get here early
    Alethic modality: A rectangle manifestly has four sides
but mixing them up in the same lesson is an unfocused approach which is unlikely to succeed.
Collocation and colligation
We saw above that these are significant issues in this area and that it is arguably essential to teach them not only in a context in which their meaning is clear but also with enough co-text for their collocational and colligational characteristics to be revealed.  If we don't do this, our learners will be led into errors such as:
    *The result was the consequence that ...
    *He was let to stay
    *The necessity was authorised
    *There is conceivable evidence that ...

etc.
Equivalence
equivalence
We have seen that there often is no clear equivalence between a sentence using a modal auxiliary and one using an alternative expression.  Sometimes, however, there is some sort of equivalence which can be exploited either to teach these sorts of terms or, in reverse, to teach the modal auxiliary meanings themselves.  For example, the modal auxiliary verbs must, can't and couldn't when used epistemically to make a logical deduction such as
    That must be our bus
    That can't be the right platform
    That couldn't have been the only reason

can be replaced with a range of alternatives, each expressing a shade of certainty.  For example:
    That is certainly the right bus
    There's a strong probability that this is the wrong platform
    At first glance, that wasn't the only reason

Getting learners to arrange these on a scale of certainty is productive.
The ability to vary the way certainty and obligation are expressed is a key skill.
Written English and English for Academic Purposes
writing
There are guides on this site to using hedging and modality in academic language and to using reporting verbs in EAP which express varying degree of certainty and assertiveness.
This area, too, is important for learners whose needs are to write and understand formal English whether in an academic or a professional setting.  The ability to unpack what a writer really means by, e.g.:
    It is arguably the case that we have verified the probability of ...
is very valuable, as is the ability not to sound overly assertive and sure of yourself.
Hiding from the area
hiding
Many teachers feel reluctant to tackle this area, preferring to stick to the certainties (!) of using modal auxiliary verbs for these functions.  That's a mistake because the area is accessible to a little analysis (see above) and can be handled right across the range of levels in the classroom.
It's also, of course, one that it would be perverse to hide from our learners.


Related guides
essential guide to modality a simpler guide in the initial training section
central modal auxiliary verbs a traditional view taking each modal auxiliary verb in turn and identifying its function
semi-modal auxiliary verbs which also considers marginal modal auxiliary verbs such as seem, tend, be about to etc.
types of modality an overview of deontic, epistemic, alethic and dynamic modality
epistemic modality modality for expressing the speaker's view of the truth or a proposition, i.e., likelihood
deontic modality modality for expressing the speaker's view of obligation or its lack
dynamic modality modality for expressing ability and willingness
multiple modalities for the guide to how some of the above may be used to combine modalities
time, tense and aspect the place to go if the distinctions between, e.g., perfect and perfective, continuous and progressive are obscure
complex tenses which also considers complex tenses in relation to modality
teaching modality for some more ideas transferable to the analysis above
modality and aspect which considers modal auxiliary verbs with perfect and progressive forms and also some of the types of modality discussed here