Dictionary | Glossary

Modal verbs in academic writing

Because of their range of meanings, these verbs play a significant role in academic style.

Activity 1: Select academic meanings

instructionWhich of the following core modal meanings are most useful in communicating academic informaion and ideas? Click on the tick or cross.


Now look at the following paragraph and identify which of the meanings above is used.

When studying the advantages and disadvantages of learning methods, it may be necessary to place learners in artificial situations, in order to observe how they might react to different stimuli. This can most easily be done via electronic media (e.g. vitual reality). If the reaction is positive, this must indicate the likelihood that learners will respond well in real life.


Tentative claims

Modal verbs are often used to make the writer's claims more or less tentative, i.e. to suggest that the writer thinks something is more or less probable. One of the weaknesses of student essays is making strong claims that cannot be supported. In these cases it is useful to be able to vary the strength of a claim to suit the circumstances.

Activity 2: Strength of claim

instructionIn these examples below, write the numbers 1-3 in the boxes to indicate how strong the claim is (3 is the strongest).

This may be the case where there has been a separation order, a decree nisi for divorce, a non-molestation order, or a separation agreement between the parties.

This might be the case with provocation, for example: there might be objections to some of the distinctions now drawn by the law.

It may well be the case that there is variation within one of these categories.


Hypothetical situations

In academic writing it is often necessary to make claims about or describe a situation that is not currently real, unlikely in the future or didn't happen in the past. Writers sometimes need to speculate by asking "What if ...". This kind of meaning is often expressed through conditional sentences, using 'if' or 'unless'.

Hypothetical present or future: The past tense is often used in the 'if' clause and would in the main clause.

A creature that hunts by daylight would waste its energy if it rushed around in the night when its prey was hiding in a hole. [present situation]
In 1943 the British government was aware that, unless rules were laid down in advance, the United States would use its enormous wealth to drive Britain and other countries off the international air routes. [future situation]

Hypothetical past: The past perfect and would have are used to write about hypothetical events in the past.

One wonders how we would have lived if the car had not been invented.

Activity 3: Fill in the gaps

instructionIn the following sentences fill in the gaps with an appropriate auxiliary verb.

1. It was clear that the two countries have to compromise if the conference not to degenerate into a complete fiasco.

2. Of course, this measure [reforestation] work only if it accompanied by efforts to reduce tropical deforestation.

3. What have happened if penicillin not been discovered?