Monday, January 26, 2015


by Lisbeth Eng

“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda…”

You may not be familiar with the term “modal verb” but we use them every day. In fact, I’ve just used one in the prior sentence.

Modal verbs are auxiliary (“helper”) verbs used to modify the main verb in a sentence, and to express modalities such as obligation, ability, permission and possibility. Though not an exhaustive list, here are a few common examples:

Can – ability – “I can write grammatically correct sentences.”

May – permission or possibility – “May I please have another piece of pie?” “He may be able to help you with that.”

Must – obligation – “You must complete the form in order to receive a refund.”

Should – obligation or advice – “One should always be polite when asking a favor.” “You really should read this novel; I think you’ll like it.”

Would – request – “Would you please wait in line until you are called?”

Modals are not conjugated the way primary verbs are. For example, you don’t add an “s” in the third person singular. “They run; he runs,” but not “They can; he cans.”

Words such as “would” can also be used conditionally, such as in the following example.

“Would you please pass the salt?” The implied condition to passing the salt is that the passer is willing to oblige. People often say, “Can you pass the salt?” to convey the same idea, but “you can” literally means “you are able to.” Of course, I am able to pass the salt but perhaps I don’t wish to. If you are asking for a favor, even a small one such as passing a condiment, “would” is more polite than “can.” You don’t want to imply that the favor will be granted, only that you would like it to be.

Similarly, one should not substitute “can” for “may” when asking permission. “Can I borrow that book when you are finished reading it?” Well, of course, you are able to borrow it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to lend it to you. It is much nicer (and more accurate) to say, “May I borrow that book?”

E-mails, text messages, tweets and other abbreviated forms of communication are notorious for misstatements of this kind. Therefore, please be so kind as to take a few extra seconds to write “may” or “would,” and help make the cyber world, as well as the material one, a more courteous place. ♥

Lisbeth Eng works as a Compliance Officer in the financial industry by day and writes historical romance by night. She holds a bachelor's degree in English, and speaks a smattering of German, Italian and French. Please visit her at

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