Is modality making you sound like a halfwit?

If you learned a second language at high school, you probably encountered a group of verbs known as modal verbs. You might remember the French modal verbs vouloir, pouvoir and devoir, or the list of six intimidating German modal verbs müssen, dürfen, können, mögen, wollen and sollen.

They’re verbs that express possibility: could, should, would, must, might. Then there are modal adverbs – apparently, evidently, possibly, probably – and modal phrases: ‘Whether it’s the case’, ‘as far as I know’, ‘it’s fair to say’.

Modality is a linguistic concept that describes a speaker’s confidence (or lack thereof) in the truth of what they’re saying. Modal elements in language convey the speaker’s subjective emotional, psychological or mental attitude towards the content of the message.

Compare these phrases:

“We didn’t make budget this quarter, because of unexpected costs from our overseas office. We need to adjust for this in the next forecast.”

“It looks like we might not have made budget this quarter. I think it could be because of some unexpected costs that came in, probably from our overseas office. I guess it might possibly help if we adjusted for this in the next forecast, you know?”

Okay, that second phrase is over the top! But you can see the difference.

Sociolinguists have long been studying modality, also known as ‘hedging’. It runs across multiple languages and is used in a variety of circumstances. There’s a strong link to socialised gender roles, with evidence that women use modality more than men from studies in the 1980s onwards by linguists such as Janet Holmes.

In 1975, linguist Robin Lakoff labelled modality ‘tentative’ and ‘unassertive’, saying that women are “socialised to believe that asserting themselves strongly isn’t nice or lady-like, or even feminine”. In her book Language and Woman’s Place, she described not only hedging but also super-polite forms (“if it’s not too much to ask”, “would you mind”), excessive apologising (“I’m sorry, but I think that …”) and tag questions (“you don’t mind, do you?”).

And linguist Jennifer Coates, in Women Talk: Conversation Between Women Friends notes that (among other things) hedging can be a strategy to avoid the appearance of playing the expert: “This is a game that seems to be played most commonly by male speakers. Women, by contrast, avoid the role of expert in conversation.”

Gender aside, modality and hedging can work against you to make you seem less sure of what you’re saying. Modality takes away assertiveness and constructs the speaker as lacking certainty and confidence, and even deficient in knowledge.

A handy (but painful) way to suss out whether or not you’re addicted to modality is to record yourself in conversation (say in a meeting, or on the phone) and review it later. Or, next time you’re sending a long email or memo, read and review it closely to weed out modal expressions.

The example given above is hyperbolic, but you might be surprised how changing a few words can convey much more confidence and knowledge. It’s fair to say, you know, to a point? Kind of, I guess.