I’m now so cool I’m writing about modal verbs

By Posted on Location: 2 min read
obscure grammar
Grammar can sometimes be a bit obscure. Just like the view when you climb, camera in hand, a big hill that supposedly looks over the entire city and the Pacific Ocean. But oh well. We shall keep trying.
La Serena, September 2019.

I often keep a grammar guide in my handbag

It’s a side-effect of my constant war with language.

I mean, sometimes I find myself having coffee and someone asks me an awkward question, like, “What type of word is ‘ought’?”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

It’s a real everyday sort of challenge

As is not always saying ‘like’ remembering I have the letters ‘t’ and ‘h’ somewhere in my mouth, and not greeting people with a friendly ‘How’s thee doing?’.

Of course, until the question is asked, I’ve no idea

When I was asked, in Spain, at one of the outdoor tables in front of the café – the one with the excellent cookies – I blinked. To start, I imagined the ways I use the word ‘ought’ but this didn’t help much.

I tugged out the grammar-guide.

“A modal verb used to convey potential or obligation.”

Grammar guides are problematic because you need to translate them into everyday speech to make their great wisdom usable. I cannot just tell a student that this word conveys potential. Not unless they’re already a bit of a language geek. And if they are, they probably know more than me.

I have to find ways the student can begin to use these modal verbs.

The truth is, a year ago, I had no idea what a modal verb was

When I started learning things like the conditional in Spanish, I didn’t know what it looked like in English. If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to consult my grammar guide and the children’s textbooks to piece it all together.

Unlike English, Spanish has a sweet way of doing the conditional. It’s like my favourite tense, even though it has an ‘r’ in it so I can’t pronounce anything in it. I found that I was using it before I could describe it.

“Me gustaría un café por favor”

In Spanish, you conjugate for every scenario

There are many conjugations to learn. In English, however, you add extra words. These extra words are the modal verbs. They change the mode/tense of the verb. ‘Ought’ is one of them. So is ‘will’.

And if you’re reading this and you speak beautiful received-pronunciation standard English and knew what a modal verb was long before you turned 28, good for you. You probably didn’t need to read all this and you won’t need a grammar-guide in your handbag.