Modal verbs and their proper applications

A newspaper passage must have rubbed someone at the Media Observer the wrong way. Reacting to the quote: “Balala cited pollution, poor road network, dilapidated buildings, water obstruction from nearby firms and encroachment on riparian land as some of the minor problems (PD April 25, page 12), the Media Observer wrote: “Balala was talking about Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha. Geography lesson; Riparian land refers to locations near/adjacent to a river or stream, not a lake “.

While there is no quarrel with the explanation, the critic failed to contextualise the passage. He or she falls in the category of readers who hardly get to understand the implied; choosing to get contented with the stated.

Often times, our teachers exhorted us to read between the lines. Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha do not get their water directly from the sky. Lake Nakuru is fed by four seasonal rivers originating in the Mau Forest: Njoro, Njerit, Makalia and Lamudhiak. Kenyans know, and the Media Observer’s critic should equally be aware of the destruction of the Mau forest and its effects.

The critic should have known that encroachment on the Mau has had adverse effects on water bodies originating there, hence, if the four rivers dried up completely, Lake Nakuru would be no more.

The same would be the case with Lake Naivasha, fed by River Turasha. We cannot, therefore, blame the journalists at PD, for that would be unfair.

These unwarranted attacks ought to stop. Wasted jabs on journalists by the Media Observer portray it as a vindictive watchdog, very unprofessional.  Many are times you read its critiques and you despair.

By inversion

From preceding paragraphs, let us pick the words ‘can’, ‘should’, ‘would’, ‘ought to’ as the main topics of our discussion today.

The four, in addition to ‘shall’, ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘may’, ‘must’ and ‘will’ are known as modal verbs. These verbs are used to show several things, namely: capacity, request permission, show ability, likelihood and obligation, or give advice and suggestions.

Notably, modal verbs are normally followed by other verbs or an infinitive. Infinitives are verbs that double up as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. An infinitive is formed by the addition of the word ‘to’, to a verb.

Infinitives stand on their own, or can be part of longer sentences. For example, ‘To sing’, ‘To take’, ‘I have always believed I will be able to sing one day’, ‘For me to take a bath, the sun must come out first’.

By employing the same words in a different order, modal verbs form question by inversion. For example, from the statement: “Renowned musician Simaro Masiya will be buried in Kinshasa “, the question by inversion would be: “Will renowned musician Simaro Masiya be buried in Kinshasa?” Whereas other verbs must conform to tenses, modal verbs do not.

The negation

Modal verbs ‘can’ and ‘could’ are used to show ability. For example, “He can carry a sack of maize without breaking a sweat”. Can, could and may are used in making requests. For example, “Can I join you in the game?”, “Could I take the bike?”, “May l take my leave, sir?”

Modal verb ‘should’ is used in giving advice. For example, “You should visit the gym regularly to lose weight”. ‘Must’, ‘have to’ and ‘ought to’ show obligation. For example, “You must finish washing the utensils before mom comes back “. “You have to lock the gate before retiring to bed”.

Modal verbs ‘might’, ‘may’, ‘could’ and ‘can’ depict possibility. For example, “It looks simple, but it might be quite difficult”, “He could turn up unexpectedly at the meeting”, “I know he can do it if he sets his mind on it”.

Let us now take a look at past modal verbs; ‘Could have’, ‘should have’, ‘shouldn’t have’ and ‘would have’. ‘Could have’ indicates what would have taken place in the past but did not. For example, “I could have contributed more to the harambee, but my bank let me down’.  The negation ‘couldn’t have’ shows something was not possible.

Past modal verb ‘should have’ takes the place of regret or to acknowledge that something was perhaps not such a good idea after all. For example, “I should have left at dawn; maybe I could have escaped the traffic jam that cost me the job”.

“Would have” is a conditional. For example, “If I had saved enough, I would have been able to purchase the car at the auction”.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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Modal verbsGrammarUses of verbs