Fun facts about modal verbs!

… because there can be nothing more fun than a modal verb, right?

In doing research for my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate student writers, I came across these interesting nuggets about the frequency of modal verbs, which I thought I’d share:

  • The most common modal verb overall in academic writing is can (I suspect because it has so many meanings!)
  • The most common modal verb for hedging (showing uncertainty or deference) is may
  • Both can and could are frequently used with passive infinitive verbs
  • Fewer than 5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a perfect infinitive (might have done)
  • Just over 0.5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a progressive infinitive (may be growing)
  • Help isn’t technically a modal, but it’s an awfully interesting verb because it can sometimes be followed by a to-infinitive (help to make) and sometimes by a bare infinitive (help make). I suspected that the shorter form (help make) should be more common in academic writing because academic writers tend to reduce the number of function words (little “grammar” words like prepositions) to increase the lexical density (number of content words per sentence). And my data supports that: only 16% of clauses with help are followed by the to-infinitive. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the highest proportion of all the registers in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, so actually academic writing is more likely to use to than spoken or other written registers, but still far more likely not to bother. Oh well, the advice still stands: the shortest form is usually the best. On which note …

Stay tuned for more tips on writing and more information about my new grammar textbook for graduate and research writers.

(All statistics are based on my searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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