Home > Grammar > The possible social implications of some modal verbs

The possible social implications of some modal verbs

ManyESLlearners find English modal verbs difficult to learn.  First of all, I should list the modal verbs of English.  The pure modal verbs are the following:

will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, can, and could.  Given that there are so few modal verbs, why are they so difficult for adultESLlearners to learn?  The reason is that these verbs have several different meanings.  In addition, there are also semi-modal verbs in English (e.g. – ought to, have to, had better etc …) with different meanings as well.

As many English learners know, one difference between some modal verbs is that one modal verb is the present tense form and another modal verb is the past tense form of the same verb.  For example, the past tense of “will” is “would”.  In addition, the past tense of “can” is “could”.  The only other modal verb with a past tense form (in contemporary English) is “must”.  The past tense of “must” is “had to”.

Although the above differences between modal verbs are known by many English learners, many learners do not know about the many other differences in meaning between modal verbs.  Some of these differences are relevant to sounding more polite.

In English, sometimes people use a past tense form in order to sound more polite.  So, example 1 below is a little more polite than example 2.


example 1: “Could I borrow your pen?”

example 2: “Can I borrow your pen?”


However, the most polite modal verb is “may”.  That is why the typical opening question that customers in a store get is “May I help you?”  As these examples illustrate the modal verb used by a speaker has some social relevance.  It would usually sound too polite to ask a friend the following question, “May I borrow your pen?”, since “may” is often used to indicate polite deference to one’s interlocutor.

If an English learner chooses the wrong modal verb or semi-modal verb, he/she may unintentionally sound overly polite or perhaps even a little rude to an English speaker.  For example, “had better” is a semi-modal verb, which is similar in meaning to “should”.  However, there are differences in meaning between “had better” and “should”, which may be subtle to an English learner.  One meaning of “should” is that of giving advice.  “Had better” has a similar function, but the implication of this semi-modal verb is that if one doesn’t follow the advice, something bad will happen.  So, if you say “You had better …” to an English speaker, it may sound like a warning.

I have encountered exactly this situation in my own personal life.  I usually go to a Chinese mechanic, who I speak English with when I am giving him my business.  One day after arriving at his garage and telling him where I had parked my car, he proceeded to say “You had better park over there.”  This use of “had better” sounded very strange to me as a native speaker of English.  I immediately assumed that he was making an English mistake rather than trying to be rude, but it occurred to me that some other English speakers might perhaps have found his suggestion a bit rude.  This is because “You had better park over there.” implies that if you don’t park over there, you may suffer a negative consequence.  A negative consequence might be something like ‘you’ll get a parking ticket’ or ‘I’ll be angry because I don’t like it when customers park there’.  In any case, it sounded too much like an order.  It would have been better for him to have said something like “Could you park behind the garage?” and then to have explained the reason.  Alternatively, he could have said something such as “If you don’t mind, perhaps you could park behind the garage” and then to have explained the reason.  Such suggestions would have been much more polite because they would have softened his statement.  Instead of sounding like an order, he instead would more clearly have been making a polite request.

Because of the above-mentioned social implications of “had better”, English speakers often only use it with “I” and “we”.  For example, examples 3 and 4 sound perfectly socially acceptable.


example 3 – “I had better hurry.” (implication – ‘or I’ll be late’)

example 4 – “We had better hurry.” (implication – ‘or we’ll be late’)


However, example 5 may sound a little bit too strong if I’m talking to somebody who I don’t know very well or who you just to be polite with.


example 5 – “You had better hurry.” (implication – ‘or you’ll be late’)


In example 5, the person you are talking to may think “It’s none of your business if I’m late or not.”

Categories: Grammar
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