Sunday, May 4, 2008

Not All Modal Verbs Are Weasels

I've added a new blog to my sidebar today. The Language Guy fascinated and entertained me for about an hour this morning, keeping me from the research I had intended to do. Instead, I ended up looking for more information on modal verbs.

Mr. LG pointS out, quite correctly, that advertising uses modal verbs to weasel out of making accurate and specific claims. You can correctly claim that your product “might” or “could” do nearly anything. After all, it only takes one instance of such a thing happening to show that it “can”.

Advertisers can take a short leap from there to stating that your peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich may reduce the signs of aging. It may not, but the possibility certainly exists. Who could argue with that logic?

To be fair to maligned modal verbs, such uses do not define their existence. When you write that “Bob searched frantically for his keys but couldn't find them anywhere” you've used the modal “couldn't” to explain that the luckless Bob was not able to find them.

When Gandalf roars, “You shall not pass!” he launches a modal challenge at the beast with no weasel in sight. He clarifies that it may attempt to pass but that it will not succeed. Of course, I'd have used “shan't”. I just like the word.