Being polite with modals

What are modal verbs?

If you’re totally new to modals, click here for a quick explanation. Modals are great for expressing opinions – and are crucial for expressing politeness in English. They are special verbs that grammatically behave differently from normal verbs. Here are some important differences:

1. Modal verbs do not take “-s” in the third person, like normal verbs.

Examples:
He can speak Chinese.
She should be here by 9:00.

2. You use “not” to make modal verbs negative, even in Simple Present and Simple Past.

Examples:
He should not be late.
They might not come to the party.


Modals often indicate time, but their main job is to denote different shades of meaning, in terms of directness and politeness.

Explanation: CAN / COULD

Examples

CAN is used both to ask for and give permission. It is considered less formal and more direct. Can you bring me a glass of wine?
COULD is used to give permission and is used to make polite requests. Could you bring me a glass of wine?

 

Explanation: WILL / WOULD

Examples

WILL is used for the simple future and is a direct way to present a request.

When using WILL to make requests, the speaker is not inquiring about someone’s willingness to perform the request.

Person A: Will you bring me more butter?

Person B: Yes, I’ll bring it right away.

WOULD is used for polite requests and is also used as an inquiry as to someone’s willingness to do something. Person A: Would you bring me more butter?

Person B: Sure, I’d be happy to.

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