Modality – system

Modality when presented to EFL learners is often limited to items such as should, could, must, etc. but the complete system network does extend beyond this, and I try to show students how the whole system interacts first rather than the usual ‘bottom-up’ approach. Here are some examples from the BNC with the modality underlined:

  1. Erm the Englishman always likes to stick one on them and
  2. I think that’ll be the case tonight
  3. Of course, it can be difficult to estimate size of, say, an ankle
  4. It is possible that future cohorts of older people will illustrate different patterns of disability.

(I love the idea of ‘cohorts of older people’.) Here we can see that only one of these, No. 3, uses traditional ‘modality’. Even this may confuse learners used to ‘can’ as ability only. Here it operates within modalization to express usuality. Together with modulation, it makes up the system of MODALITY TYPE.

Example No. 1 also expresses usuality but, unlike No. 3 which is presented more as a subjective opinion, it is presented as a kind of understood fact. From this we can see that modality can be expressed both subjectively and objectively. Both No. 1 and No. 3 are presented as being somehow implicitly ‘understood’, yet it is also possible to make this explicit by employing grammatical metaphor, as in No. 2. Rather than ‘That’ll certainly be the case’ we can project it with a mental clause + idea clause (I think + that’ll be the case). This is still, however, a subjective opinion. We may wish to present it objectively with a relational clause + factual Carrier as in No. 4 (It is possible + that future cohorts of older people will illustrate...). These expressions of subjective-objective and implicit-explicit together make up the system of ORIENTATION. One gap in this is that “there are no systematic forms for making the subjective orientation explicit in the case of usuality or inclination” (H & M, p.619).

We can also notice, however, that some of the examples are stronger than others. No. 1 is presented as being of high probablity while No. 3 of low probablity. No. 2 is medium. These three together give us the system of VALUE.

All of the examples above are positive. It is, of course, also possible to make them negative within a system of POLARITY. Notice, however, that there is a subtle difference between the polarity being directly on the proposition (I think that won’t be the case) or transferred to the modality (I don’t think that’ll be the case).

From all this we can now get the system network of modality:

(From H & M, p.150)


About eflfunc

I'm an EFL teacher in Japan and this is a blog to record some thoughts on using Systemic Functional Linguistics in the foreign language classroom.
This entry was posted in Content: lexico-grammar, Interpersonal function and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Modality – system

  1. sara says:

    i was wondering how SFL can help writing teachers? is it possible to follow the development of the students’ writing skills?

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