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Concourse 2

Modality in Business English


There are, of course, many guides on this site concerned with modality, modal auxiliary verbs, mood and expressing doubt, certainty and so on.  All tackle modality in one way or another.
The index to modality guides is here (new tab).
This short guide is not concerned to analyse the many ways in which English handles modality but to see what types of modality and what language forms are most centrally needed by learners and users of English in a business context.
Before we can get on to that, here's a reminder of the main sorts of modality we need to think about and some examples of how we might express the ideas in a Business English context.

  1. epistemic modality is to do with the speaker's perception of the truth or otherwise of a proposition.  There are three sorts:
    1. judgemental or speculative
          These figures might not be entirely accurate
          It is possible that there will be a short delay
    2. deductive or evidential
          The material may have been exposed to damp
          It seems that our meeting was not successful
    3. assumptive
          The office won't be open for another hour or so
          The time difference means we must talk in the evening
  2. deontic modality relates to obligation and duty (or its lack).  There are four sorts:
    1. imperative
          This must be finished by Thursday
          We cannot commit too many resources to the project
    2. directive
          Please make sure the room is arranged for the meeting
          It's your responsibility to update the figures
    3. commissive
          Please be assured of our closest attention to this
          Your order will be filled this month
    4. jussive
          The finance manager has the duty to get the figures to you
          My colleagues will get back to you very soon
  3. dynamic modality is centred on the subject and encompasses ability and willingness.
    1. ability
          We could fulfil the order more quickly with some changes to the production schedule
          We have the means to re-design the product
    2. willingness
          The report will be with you by Thursday
          We are committed to serving our customers' best interests
      This type of modality is, elsewhere on this site, described as commissive modality because it functions to commit the speaker / writer to an action.

A fourth type of modality, alethic modality, referring to logical necessity, is little used in Business English (which is more concerned with the preceding three types of modality) although its use in English for Science and Technology to refer to natural laws is very common.  For example:
    The materials must be heated to 600 degrees Celsius to extract the product
refers not to the speaker's perception and not to any form of obligation, ability or deduction but to the fact that one of the necessary conditions of extracting the product is the heating.



The usual, regrettably sometimes the only, way that modality is tackled in the General English classroom is via the use of modal auxiliary verbs with the often confusing and vague focus on possibility, obligation, likelihood, ability, willingness and so on.
In Business English, however, the level of formality and distancing that is needed often precludes the use of modal auxiliary verbs altogether and even more often prohibits the use of personal pronouns.
The alternative resource is to employ modal adjectives, verbs, nouns and adverbs which allow the speaker / writer to maintain a certain impersonal distance and to focus on the issue rather than people's views of the issue.

Instead of ...  ... we are more likely to have ...
Epistemic modality
He might complain about that It is not impossible that the customer will complain
This must be what we should do This is clearly the right way to proceed
There is going to be a problem A problem is unavoidable
That has to be the problem That is evidently the source of the problem
The materials should be with you soon You have our assurance that the materials will be with you soon
It might be doable in the time allowed Hypothetically, this can be achieved in the time allowed
Deontic modality
You must write the report soon The report needs to be written soon
We have to get this finished There's an obligation to complete this
We can't do it like that There is little point in proceeding this way
We must obey the regulations This will be done in conformity with the regulations
I don't have to be at the meeting It is not necessary for me to attend
She must go to talk to the customer Please ask her to talk to the customer personally
You carry the can The liability for any issues lies with you
Dynamic modality
I'll make sure this happens This will be achieved
We can see from the data that ... The data demonstrate that ...
We couldn't do it in time Time was too limited for the accomplishment of the actions
We won't reduce the price The price is not negotiable
The department could see that it failed It became obvious to the department that there was no success
We can meet the demands of the programme The programme can be accomplished

Note also in the list above the frequent use of passive structures which allow an impersonal rather than a personal tone.
For a fuller list of modal adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs, see the guide to modality without modal auxiliary verbs, linked below.


Hedging and epistemic modality

Apart from issues of formality, modal expressions are concerned with hedging responses because in business it is often a mistake to appear too certain or make promises one cannot keep.  The ability to hedge, in both writing and speech, is an important one.
In informal, everyday language expressions such as:
    I might do
    That could be
    Probably, ...
    Perhaps, ...
    Actually, ...
    I believe ...

and so are commonly used to hedge the certainty of what one says.
As we saw above, however, in Business English, the preference is to avoid simple modal auxiliary verbs and informal adverbials and use rather more sophisticated language.
Here are some examples:

Instead of ...  ... we are more likely to have ...
She might be at the meeting It is possible that she will be at the meeting
That must be the case This is almost certainly the situation
This should fix the problem This is a plausible solution
They can't have decided yet The decision has arguably not been made
Business should pick up in the winter Statistically, business improves in the winter months
That must have been the cause That is verifiably the cause
That ought to be better The team assumes that this is an improvement 

and so on.  Again the use of adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs is a preferred route to expressing certainty and likelihood.



The natural temptation to teach modality from the point of view of what modal auxiliary verbs can signal should be resisted.  A functional approach, looking at the three main types of modality that are useful in a business context is probably a better way forward.
Better still is getting well away from the use of modal auxiliary verbs, especially for epistemic and deontic modality, altogether and focusing on adverbs, verbs, adjectives and nouns which perform the same functions but are more easily adapted to change the tone of what is said from the personal to the distant.


Raising awareness

The modal auxiliary verb system in English is a complex and confusing area and learners who have mastered most or even only part of it are naturally keen to deploy their knowledge of the verbs.
However, within formal language in a business context, that often results in some inappropriate and often far too direct language.
This needs addressing first so a way to begin is to see if people can identify what is polite, formal and distant from what is clear but too direct and personal.
A simple matching task such as this one is all that is needed and the task can be extended to make more subtle differences clear, of course, depending on the level of the learners.


Language focus

The key here is the use of verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives to express modality in ways that are less direct, personal or threatening.
Here's an example of the sort of exercise type one could use.

What differences are there?  How have things been changed?  The first one is an example.
This ... ... was changed to this ... ... by ...
They might have what we need It is conceivable that they are able to supply what is required Using an adjective (conceivable) instead of the verb might
Changing the verbs to something more exact (have to supply, need to require)
These figures should go in the report The report will be improved with the inclusion of these figures  
Why can't we make the data more secure? What is the reason that we are unable to secure the data?  

and so on.


Language production

A short step from the language focus phase is to semi-controlled production:

Rephrase the sentences to make them more business-like, impersonal and formal.  The first one is an example.
Original Rephrasing
I suppose this could be the solution It is conceivable that this is a solution
Make sure this gets done  
Can we try another way?  
We can't go on like this  
Production must be increased  
Would you get the figures to the bank, please?   

There will, naturally, be scope for discussing a range of alternatives.  That can be helpful and make the language a little more personal.



None of the above should be taken to suggest that modal auxiliary verbs are never used in Business English settings.  That would be absurd.
Many business-oriented interactions are informal, social and confidence-/ rapport-building encounters in which all three types of modality are commonly realised through the use of modal and semi-modal auxiliary verbs.  There are guides to all of these linked from the in-service index to modality.
However, the overuse of modal auxiliary verbs where more sophisticated language would be appropriate is certainly a marker of someone not at home with how to use distancing, hedging and depersonalisation techniques.

Related guides
the modality index for the in-service index to the whole area
modality without modal auxiliary verbs  a guide to alternatives which may be more appropriate in more formal settings
types of modality an overview of deontic, epistemic, alethic and dynamic modality
epistemic modality modality for expressing the speaker's view of the truth or a proposition, i.e., likelihood
deontic modality modality for expressing the speaker's view of obligation or its lack
dynamic modality modality for expressing ability and willingness
modality and aspect which consider modal auxiliary verbs with perfect and progressive forms and also considers some of the types of modality discussed here
the passive in business English for a guide to a related area also concerned with impersonal, more formal language