Interpersonal modal Adjunct v Experiential Circumstance

I always do that. (Adjunct)
I do that all the time. (Circumstance)

I usually do that. (Adjunct)
I do that almost everyday. (Circumstance)

I often do that. (Adjunct)
I do that at times. (Circumstance)

I sometimes do that. (Adjunct)
I do that now and then. (Circumstance)

I rarely do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that much. (Circumstance)

I never do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that at all. (Circumstance)

Modality – ability

One last category of modality is that of ability/potentiality, which may be expressed either subjective explicit (she can/can’t...) or objective explicit (she is/isn’t able to…). As H & M (p. 621) put it, ability “is on the fringe of the modality system” yet I think the implications of this for EFL learning are not highlighted often enough. Ability is mostly introduced with the ‘I can play tennis’-type lessons, which may be true (if unnatural), but the importance of ability lying outside the main system of modality is seen, for example, if we compare requests such as ‘Could you help me?‘, which is a neutral acknowledgement that you have the ability to help me, against ‘Would you help me?‘ which, being in the main system of modality, is asserting my opinion that you should help me.

Another classroom activity I use to introduce this difference is by drawing a squiggle on a piece of paper. We can then see who has the best imagination by making a list of what it possibly could be: a butterfly, a map, a doodle, etc. The point here is that it not our own personal opinion, we are merely making a list. Then, students can choose what they see as the best choice of what it might be, introducing personal responsibility for a decision. This activity can be adapted for business or higher level students with a role play activity discussing changes to an office building to make it more environmentally friendly by first listing the possible options (we could install double glazing) and then offering a personal assessment of that choice (it would save electricity, it might be expensive).

Modality – modulation (inclination)

Modulation operates on proposals, where “the meaning of the positive and negative poles is prescribing and proscribing: positive ‘do it’ and negative ‘don’t do it’ [and] there are two kinds of intermediate possibility, in this case depending on the speech function, whether command or offer” (H & M, p.147). For offers, it represents a degree of inclination, and here we also have a subjective or objective orientation, although as in usuality only the implicit is available.

1.  Subjective

High: I must do it.

Medium: I’ll do it.

Low: I may do it.

2. Objective

High: I’m determined to do it.

Medium: I’m keen to do it.

Low: I’m willing to do it.

Modality – modulation (obligation)

Modulation operates on proposals, where “the meaning of the positive and negative poles is prescribing and proscribing: positive ‘do it’ and negative ‘don’t do it’ [and] there are two kinds of intermediate possibility, in this case depending on the speech function, whether command or offer” (H & M, p.147). For commands, the modality is one of obligation, which may be either subjective or objective.

1.  Subjective

Subjective obligation may have one of two orientations:

i. Implicit

High: You must go!

Medium: You will/shall go!

Low: You may go!

The medium and low values may also then be softened by shifting to past tense: you should go; you might go.

ii. Explicit

High: I demand that you go.

Medium: I recommend that you go. 

Low: I suggest that you go.

Notice that these are a grammatical metaphor shift from verbal processes, in keeping with the speech function of command.

2.  Objective

Objective obligation may also have two orientations:

i. Implicit

High: You’re required to go.

Medium: You’re supposed to go.

Low: You’re allowed/permitted to go.

ii. Explicit

High: It is necessary that you go.

Medium: It is recommended that you go.

Low: It is permitted for you to go.

Modality – Modalization (usuality)

Modalization operates on propositions, in the space between ‘It is…‘ and ‘It isn’t…‘. There are “two kinds of intermediate possibilities: (i) degrees of probability [and] (ii) degrees of usuality” (H & M, p.147). Usuality is “equivalent to ‘both yes and no’, that is, sometimes yes, sometimes no, with different degrees of oftenness attached”. Here is a description of Koala feeding patterns from Australian Wildlife:

They will feed at any time of day, but usually at night.

This demonstrates the two types of orientation for the system of usuality.

1.  Subjective (implicit)

High: It (does) rain.

Medium: It will rain.

Low: It may rain.

2.  Objective (implicit)

High: It always rains.

Medium: It usually rains.

Low: It sometimes rains.

Unlike probability, there is “no systematic form for making the subjective orientation explicit” (H & M, p.619) but it is possible to make the objective orientation explicit with items such as, It’s common for it to rain; It’s usual for it to rain.

Modality – modalization (probability)

Modalization operates on propositions, in the space between ‘It is…‘ and ‘It isn’t…‘. There are “two kinds of intermediate possibilities: (i) degrees of probability [and] (ii) degrees of usuality” (H & M, p.147). Probability is concerned with “‘either yes or no’, that is, maybe yes, maybe no, with different degrees of likelihood attached. This degree of likelihood may be construed as being either subjective or objective.

1.  Subjective

Here is a quote from Bill O’Reilly, cited on Huffington Post:

I may be an idiot.

This expresses a Low subjective opinion that implicitly admits to the possibility of it being true. We can change this, of course, to High:

I must be an idiot.

We have, then, three values of implicit subjective probability:

High: She must know.

Medium: She’ll know.

Low: She may know.

We can also make the Medium and Low values softer by creating metaphorical distance through the past tense: She’ll know She’d know and She may know She might know.

We can also, however, make this subjective opinion more explicit with grammatical metaphor. Here, being concerned with opinions and statements, we most commonly use mental Processes:

High: I know she knows.

Medium: I think she knows.

Low: I guess she knows.

2.  Objective

Here is an overheard conversation that was reported in Column 8:

Lady: How much is this metal hat stand?

Vendor: $260. It’s Victorian.

Lady: Well you must mean it comes from Melbourne, because it’s certainly not that  old.

After subjective hedging to imply ‘it’s just my opinion’ (you must mean), the speaker offers an objective assessment regarding the age of the hat stand (it’s certainly not that old) that is also construed as being ‘obvious’, or implicit. Again, we can have three values:

High: She certainly knows.

Medium: She probably knows.

Low: She possibly knows.

We can also construe it as being an explicit objective opinion, metaphorically separate from the speaker:

High: It’s certain that she knows.

Medium: It’s probable that she knows.

Low: It’s possible that she knows.

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)


Modality operates to “construe the region of uncertainty that lies between ‘yes’ and ‘no'” (H & M, p.147). In order to treat modality somewhat more systematically than is usually the case in EFL treatments, we need to go back to the nature of dialogue and the speech function of the clause. In SFL, a clause is either a proposition, an ‘information type’, or a proposal, a ‘goods-&-services type’.

For propositions, the space between yes and no is a choice between two options. The first is a probability of either yes or no (There can’t be many candlestick makers left), while the second is a degree of usuality of both yes and no (It‘ll change right there in front of your eyes). These two can be referred to as modalization.

For goods-&-services, there is a choice between some degree of obligation to perform a command (The roads should pay for themselves, like the railways) or an inclination to perform an offer (Voters won’t pay taxes anymore). These two we can refer to as modulation.

Taking the two modality types of modalization and modulation together, we can now see the system more clearly:

(Figure and all examples from H & M, p.618)


The Finite is the element that “brings the proposition down to earth, so that it is something that can be argued about” (H & M, p.115). This can be done in one of two ways: (i) tense and (ii) modality. Tense allows a proposition to “become arguable through being located in time by reference to the speech event” (p116). Modality allows a proposition to become “arguable through being assessed in terms of the degree of probability or obligation that is associated with it” (p116). The negative sometimes belongs functionally with the Finite. Compare:

You may not stay (are not allowed to)
You may not stay (are allowed to)
Subject Finite Residue  

Tense and modality allow the Finite to “locate the exchange within the semiotic space that is opened up between the speaker and the listener” (p.116). This, I think, is an important point for EFL. Tense is not necessarily just related to the real-world time in which the exchange takes place. If we compare, for example, two questions that take place in the same real-world time:

  1. Do you want me to copy the report?
  2. Did you want me to copy the report?

The second of the two examples creates a greater space between the real-world time of the participants and tense in the clause and it is this greater “semantic space” that allows it to be perceived as more ‘polite’.

I think it’s also a good point to remember that within the interactive event, the primary element is the Finite – this is what makes it arguable – and the Predicator is secondary. This helps explain the difference between, for example, will and going to. When we say I will play tennis the event is being construed as taking place in a primary future that is, as such, unaccessable to the speakers now. It cannot change. In the case of I am going to play tennis, however, the primary element is the present am which locates the event as being still accessable to the speakers. The Predicator going to play is thus still within the present (future in present) and, as such, may be changed, altered or cancelled.