Posted by: Andy | February 25, 2010

Grammar Lesson – Modal Verbs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to inform people in a more accurate way about our daily lives.  What do we really do every day?  What is a typical day like for us here? 

I discovered as I thought about this that much to my chagrin, I spend far more time than I would like to admit thinking about grammar.

Though I’d rather not, I am constantly analyzing the things I read, the things I write and the things I say.  I’m not being picky about people using incorrect grammar; I simply am consistently noticing when they use grammar structures and quite honestly, I hate this.

One thing that I particularly notice is the use of modal verbs.  If you just asked yourself, “What is a modal verb?”, don’t worry, I would have asked myself the same question six months ago.

Common modal verbs are: can, could, will, would, should, must, may, might, have to, need to, ought to etc. and all of their negative forms.

These verbs are used for four basic purposes, requests, permission, advice and obligation.  In American English, we overuse should and have to.  “Have to” is correctly used for strong obligation for such things as laws or rules, not for advice nor for obligation not pertaining to rules, laws or life or death situations.  For example, it is very common in America to hear somebody say, “Oh, you have to see this movie.”  That is, in a way, incorrect. 

Trying to teach such things to Turkish students is difficult when the reality is that Americans don’t use modal verbs correctly.  I am honest with them about this. 

One thing that is difficult to get across to people learning a new language is that native speakers can pretty much do whatever they want with the language.  We can invert the word order of a sentence Yoda-style.  We can use ridiculous phrases like “I might could…”  We can invent new words and have them become real words within a couple of years, such as ginormous, doh or meh. 

The difficulty is trying to find the balance between this is what will be on your exams and this is what you’re going to hear if you travel to an English-speaking country or watch American television or movies.  Serious students get rather annoyed by the distractions of things not on their exams, but I think they’re serious for the wrong reasons.  Those serious about actually learning English for the sake of learning the language and using it don’t mind such deviations toward reality.

So that is the truth.  When I ride the bus to work, I think about grammar.  When I’m cooking, I think about grammar.  It’s terrible.  I hope some day it will disappear from my brain patterns.


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