TEFL Teaching modal auxiliary verbs

It was while attempting to wrap my brain around the meaning of the construction "must needs", which I had encountered so often in classical English Literature, that I was incidentally drawn to an inves-tigation of modals.

Modals, I learned, are semantic expressions of modalities: which is to say that they are nuanced constructions designed to express the speakers point of view with regards to his subject: be it his degree of certainty regarding the truth of a proposition he is propounding, his expression of permission, obligation, or necessity implicated in a situation, or his opinion regarding someone?s- or something?s- ability or volition with respect to a potential.

Said differently, a modality is merely a point of view, and a modal a linguistic vehicle for expressing that point of view. These modals are complex, however, and have been variously described as auxiliaries, tense-less auxiliaries, and defective verbs- along with other, perhaps more frustrated categorizations- and are generally among the hardest ?verb? forms for the non-native speaker of English to master, as well as amongst the most difficult concepts for the native-English teacher to teach.

Problems arising in the learning of the modals include that every form has at least two meanings ("You must go home" vs. "You must be Tom", for example)- differences resulting from a change of focus, more or less, which are formally categorized in from two (intrinsic vs. extrinsic) to three (epistemic, deontic, and dynamic) realms, depending on which particular school of thought you consult. In addition- if all that is not intimidating enough- the modals are also subdivided into two semantic categories which behave quite differently from each other, notwithstanding their typically English arrays of exceptions peculiar to each group. These subdivisions are the "core" modals: will, would, can, could, shall, should, may, might, and must; and the "periphrastic", or "semi-modals", represented by such constructions as ought to, need to, going to, used to, and have to. (The pure auxiliary "have", then, rears its head here as a semi-modal too, and in those dual capacities it becomes a word which can be combined and recombined with nearly every other form: a ferment which both enriches and queers every soup it touches).

Another part of the problem is etymological, given that in archaic forms the modals likely took the full range of verb suffixes, but that over time they became increasingly specialized. In fact, many scholars now question whether the modals should even rightly be called verbs at all! Such assertions are certainly well-supported, too, considering that in most cases these modals- unlike currently acknowledged pure verb forms- do not take any non-finite forms (infinitives or -ing endings), do not assume the -s form for the 3rd person singular, and cannot be meaningfully chained together (as in ?would shall?, for example).

When it comes to the semi-modals, however, that picture changes somewhat, as they can take finite forms, can take past participles, and can be chained together (A revelation which supplies at least part of the justification for- albeit not the slotted understanding of- that ?must needs" construction I mentioned).

Mastering the systematic nomenclature here is not necessary to the ELL, of course, but a practical understanding of the ways in which these forms operate with the native speaker´s mind is. The ELL should learn the forms and uses as a system, however, and not as just a list. That is because experience has shown that the ELL who learns his modals from a list tends to merely memorize a couple use- options for each entry, and to plug one or the other in at every use- opportunity without transcendence.

Even so, once achieved, and en route to that coveted native- competence cum fluency that the modals furnish yet another doorway into, the ELL will soon learn that even that path is tarred with region-alisms, nuances, and ambiguities: and that full fluency betrays that those ambiguities are sometimes deli-berately so. It?s a perplexing road- upon which the eager aspirant should not be cast unawares. Surely we must needs lead him.


Margo Williams, 2003 Modals in the English Language Classroom: AL8460 English Grammar for ESL/EFL Teachers http://www.geocities.com/margowilliams2002/modals?20062

Modal Difficulties of Teaching Modals http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/issue1/modalif Michael Thompson. Modals in English Language Teaching, Karen?s Linguistics Issues, March 2002 http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/modalsinteachingl

Author: John R. Burton

Date of post: 2006-11-20