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Language strategies: endorsing & distancing

Strategy 3: Using modality

Modality refers to the system English uses to communicate fine shades of meaning along a positive-to-negative spectrum.

English has an extensive system of modality. Generally, it allows us to express degrees of:

  • usuality – how frequently something happens or is true.
  • probability, possibility or certainty – the likelihood of something happening or being the case.
  • obligation or necessity – how necessary it is for things to be done or to be a certain way.
  • ability – the ability of someone or something, to do something.
  • inclination – the inclination or willingness of someone to do something.

In academic writing, we use these various types of modality to ‘modulate’ our stance regarding the evidence or proposition we are discussing.

How to express modality

We can use a range of grammatical items to express modality. For example, we can:

  • include a modal auxilliary in the verb group (can, could, must, ought to, shall, should, may, might).
  • use certain verbs which inherently convey meanings to do with obligation, necessity, usuality, inclination or probability (e.g. require, permit, want to, wish to, would like to, seem to, appear to, tend to).
  • use adverbs and adjectives indicating probability, ablity or usuality (eg. surely, certainly, potentially, often, rarely, usually, capable, possible, probable). Remember that some of these words also function as intensifiers and limiters (see Module 2, Unit 4, section 4.2).
  • use nouns indicating probability, certainty, usuality, obligation or ability (e.g. likelihood, possibility, capability, necessity, requirement, permission, potential).

Note: Words like perhaps and maybe also indicate modality. However, they are not widely used or accepted in academic writing. If you tend to rely on these, you need to broaden your ability to use other forms of modality.