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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Grammar Meanies, Grammar Pals, Modals and Understanding What Comes Naturally

I am a June Casagrande's fan. She is the author of Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies and Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs--Even If You're Right. (Both are published by Penguin.)

I , ahem...found her -- yes I did. Sitting at the back of my UCLA class a couple of years ago, her long blonde hair a dead giveaway 'cause she looked just like the picture of her in the column she writes that is printed in my hometown newspaper, the Glendale News-Press.

Hey, what a resource! Couldn't let that one get away. Since then she has been a guest lecturer for my class and, of course, the source of grammar ideas galore. This week she talks about modals.

Now that's a subject rarely addressed. And, although I don't like to use grammar words that elicit yawns from the masses any more the June or Boyd do, there are times when they help understanding. That, after all, is what words are for. In this case, I think it helps to have something to call these little guys. Modals, that is.

Modals are words like "may," "might," "could," "should," "can," "shall," "will," and, June's favorite (it seems) "must." There is a sub category of marginal modals and they are "ought to," "used to," and "need."

Most of us think of these guys as simply helping verbs that help express tense but these modal guys are a little different. Here's a quote from June's column (which, by the way, is always humorous to help keep her audience from nodding off) that will help you know what they do:

"A modal's job is either 'to refer to some kind of human control over the situations such as permission or obligations,' or to 'refer to some kind of judgement of the truth value of propositions, such as its possibility or necessity.'" She takes issue with the human part which came from the Oxford English Grammar, pointing out that a horse "can" run fast and "may" win the race and, that, she supposes "may" be without any real "control" from a human but rather have more to do with the will of the horse.

Ahhh, English. Isn't it wonderful?

So, why does anyone care? Darned if I know but you might impress an editor you want to argue a case with at some point. And that isn't all bad.

Oh, and if English isn't your first language, the use of these modals may not all as self-evident as native speakers take them to be. In which case, a native speaker may be very, very grateful to understand that there do seem to be differences between them and auxiliary verbs after all, that she is not completely out of her gourd for having noticed (or for having trouble with them!) after all.

BTW, you "can" reach June a


Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at

1 comment:

June Casagrande said...

Since I'm so touched by your kind words, I can't resist taking this opportunity to share your readers what a wonderful resource YOU are:

Carolyn's passion for helping authors and other writers is truly amazing! (And she's a pro with the grammar stuff, too.)

Thanks, Carolyn, for your sincere enthusiasm on behalf of writers everywhere!

-- June Casagrande

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