Someone of my acquaintance not prone to making comments on items appearing on the Bulletin Facebook page did so the other day. Faced with all the uncertainties and speculation surrounding holiday travel from the UK to Mallorca, her response to this item barely concealed an exasperation - “today’s modal headline”.
Modal verbs are the very stuff of uncertainty precisely because they indicate modality. They convey possibility, likelihood, the hypothetical. Some modals, e.g. must or should, have a command purpose, which offer a greater hint of certainty than is usual with a modal - can, could, will, would, may, might - but far from complete certainty. You should go and boil your head is a command that doesn’t exactly come with 100% likelihood.
It has been suggested that the English language, courtesy of its modals, is a reflection of a culture that is somewhat non-committal (or is it the other way round?). Straight talking is not the British way, whereas other cultures are far more direct. In Germany, one was forever hearing this argument. Germans are more direct, and modals are a reason.
It was a nonsense argument, as I always maintained, as German has its modals. There may not be the same number of so-called semi-modals as English manages to stretch to, but there are modals nonetheless, while there is a strand of German society - aware of this direct accusation - which is all too happy to defend itself on the basis of polite speech.
This linguistic and cultural aspect aside, it must be said (must it?) that the English modal has rarely had it so good as it has over the past weeks and months. And that is because of the modal headline. Each and every day the modal bombards us, telling us that travel and holidays could be happening or might be about to start. The modal might is thus mightier than the sword of certain speech. Basically, no one knows. Might there be a green list? Could there be holidays in June?
Even when a modal headline creeps in that implies a greater degree of certainty, it has to be treated with caution. “Mallorca will be on the green list.” Hurrah. But be careful, as for every will there is an if clause lurking after it. As some of you may (or perhaps will) know, this is the conditional form. It depends.
The current will it-won’t it of travel is just a part of the very much more poignant narrative of Covid. For more than a year we have been overwhelmed by the modal, and for very good reason - all the uncertainty. But with travel and holidays, the modality causes ever greater frustration. People want to know, and they want to know now, not in a few weeks’ time.
Understandable though this is, the modal can’t be avoided. Or make that - shouldn’t be avoided. Because without it, false hopes can be raised through the pretence of a statement of certainty. And such statements can be found in headlines which eschew the might of the modal and do indeed prefer the power of direct talking.
On my Windows laptop, the start tab when I open the browser is an MSN page. I don’t ask for this. It just appears, inviting me to click on innumerable items in which I haven’t got the slightest bit of interest. Plus, I am totally attuned to what the deal is - the clicking and all this may entail.
It is a bombardment akin to the bombardment by modal but it is a bombardment that is mostly that of total rubbish. But it is rubbish that only rarely enters modal land. Assertive headlines or ads or whatever speak of certainty and truth (allegedly). If one succumbs to this temptation, one discovers that to look at the Sun or look in the Mirror (as Lily Allen once cryptically put it) means that I (and you) are on the right track, when we are in fact nothing of the sort. Go to the relevant news item, and what do you find? Modals.
Speculation. This is a modal forte as there is speculation for accumulation. All those clicks. The straight-talking headline is unnecessary. It may indeed be counterproductive. If we sense certainty, then why bother going further? A modal, though, can pique interest and curiosity. What is it that may happen?
The fact is that we can’t do without the modal, and nor should we. There isn’t a cynicism with a modal because it is truthful and not an assertion that turns out to be false. It is truthful because we are bombarded with truthful uncertainty, and so much of the time all any of us can do is speculate. And this, I’m afraid, is how Covid has conditioned us. We don’t know for certain ... only may, might or could.