Analysis of Modality in Language


1. Rationale:

The more developing social is, the more multiform language’ research is. There are many things to read between the lines of the meaning of words or sentences when using them for communication in the real life. Modality is an issue which maybe makes learners to have difficulties in studying a language. Besides it is an interesting topic for language researchers. Why is it interesting? In this assignment, I would like to put my focus on the sights of modality in language to have the answer for that above question.

2. Aims of the study

The study is aimed at:

  • Indentifying specific kinds of modality in language, special in English
  • Help learner to have the general picture in language.

3. Scope of the study

Because of my limited time and knowledge, I would like to put my focus on modality in languages within common sentences in the real life. I will give a general introduction about modality and concentrate on the analysis of the figure sentences in some English sentences which will be compared to Vietnamese ones.

4. Research methods and data collection:

4.1. Research design:

In this study, the quantitative methods will be used to classify and analyze data to find out the modality in English and Vietnamese sentences. In addition, descriptive method is used to give a detailed description of modality in English sentences. And finally, comparative method is used to figure out some similaraties and differences between English and Vietnamese sentences.

4.2. Data Collection:

This research is restricted to language. Data for this research are collected from different types of sentences taken from the grammar books( in English or Vietnamese) or in the real life. The data is likely to provide a detailed description of  how modality is used in different sentences.

4. 3 Design of the study

The study covers the following 5 chapters:

Chapter 1– Introduction- provides the rationale, the aims and objectives, the research question, the scope of the study and the organization of the study.

Chapter 2 – Literature Review and Theoretical Background- gives literature review and theoretical background where a review of previous studies related to the thesis is carried out and the theoretical background of the study is provided.

Chapter 3 – Methodology- describes the methods and procedures of the study. It also deals with the design of the research, data collection, data analysis and the reliability and validity of the study.

Chapter 4 – Finding and Discussion- presents the findings and discussions, which concentrates on grammar structure to show two types of modality.

Chapter 5 – Conclusions and Implications- includes the summary of the major findings of the study and the implications for the meaning of the sentences which consist of modality.

2.1 Modality

There are some views on modality. It can be defined particularly which based on from which points of views people understand the term.

According to Frawley and Charles (1992)modality is ” a semantic phenomenon, expressing the attitude and state of knowledge about a proposition” while Bybee (1985)defined as modality is what the speaker is doing with the whole proposition and Halliday (1985) presented modality means the speaker’s judgment of the probabilities, the obligations or so on, involving in what he/she is saying.

Modality, according to Palmer (1986), is defined as semantic information associated with the speaker’s attitude or opinion about what is said. He gave the point of the fact that modality concerns the factual status of proposition. Besides, it maybe consists of mood: “Further it is very important to speak of mood only if the attitude of mind is shown in the form of the verb: mood thus is a syntactic, not a notional category” (Jaspers). In another hand, modality are sorts of a semantic issue because it presents the attitude of the speaker or theory about the fact of status of a proposition; however, mood is a grammatical phenomenon within this theory or attitude is showed morphologically. Learners can see clearly in opposite forms of words in English.

According to Searle (1969), in his research he shows a structure of the sides of modality to discuss. For instance, he decorates assertive within terms of the belief of the speaker or commitment to the fact of proposition. He agreed that directives and commissives are related to deontic modality while expressive, assertive and declaratives have the relationship with epistemic modality.

There are two views in a common thinking when it is said or spoken out from the speaker or writer: “the propositional content and the non-propositional content which expresses the speaker’ attitude and opinion toward the content of proposition”(Hoa, 2004). The main carriers of modality are a set of auxiliary verbs called modals: will, would, can, could, may, might, shall, should, must and ought to. Modality is encoded in various other expressions, too: possibly, probably, have (got) to, need to and be able to. For examples,

a. You must apologize. ( obligation)

b. You can come in now. (permission)

c. She’s not able to see you until Tuesday. (feasibility)

2.2 Types of modality

The different language researchers had tried to give the ways with the different types of modality in order to arrange them into the different categories. However, this way is only a small group of classification of modality’s meaning without the general partition of the largest meaning of modality.

According Nguyen Van Hiep, he provided 3 types of modality in Má»™t số phạm trù tình thái trong ngôn ngữ: alethic, deontic and epistemic which are mentioned by many researchers. However, in some studies, most of researchers told about deontic and epistemic were popular. They share 2 sides: subjectivity and non-factuality (Hoa, 2004). So, this study also focuses on these types of modality.

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Nguyen Hoa (2004)indicates the degree of commitment by the speaker to what he/ she says.It means that “Epistemic”, which is derived from the Greek word meaning “understanding” or “knowledge”, refers to the type of modality that indicates the degree of commitment by the speaker to what he says.  Palmer (1986) also suggests that epistemic modality should relate to modal system to indicate the degree of commitment – the extent to which the truth of proposition is possible. We can see this degree in two sentences:

  1. John may be in the office.

→ here explains foruncertainly/a possible conclusion of speakerin the speculative sentence (a) through using the modal verb “may”.

  1. John must be in the office.

→In the deductive sentence (b), this degree here is the only possible conclusion of speaker which is showed in the word “must”.

By two examples above, it is not difficult to indicate the degree of the commitment when speaker says. Furthermore, Palmer also provides that “epistemic can be described as possibility-based”. It is interested in belief, knowledge or truth, etc and consists of “no element of with”.

According to Palmer, there are two kinds of epistemic commitment such as judgement and evidential. About judgement, the creator relates to possibility and necessity and the judgements appear to be more “subjective” because the commitment comes from the speaker’ knowledge or belief. We look at two below sentences together. Here:

  1. She is likely to be late. (English)
  2. Có lẽ giờ này tàu Ä‘ã chạy. (Vietnamese)

“likely” and “có lẽ” are two words used to describe the commitment of speaker. He think that “she” (a) maybe goes to late and maybe basing on the time the train run away (b). He believes that and that is his thinking in his mind. So, it seems likely more subjective – not sure, not exactly for listener.

If “judgement” concerns of “subjective”, ” evidential” relates to “objectively”. It is encoded the ground on which a speaker makes an overtly qualified assertion and represents a proposition more objectively.

Ex:They say the match has been called off.

Nghe nói hắn Ä‘ã bỏ trốn.

It is clear that speaker has a particular evident to give out his word. By using the third speaker, his word has the higher belief.

Therefore, when speaker does not ensure the truth of what he/she says, he often chose one of four to say what he is thinking:

  • What speaker surmises
  • What speaker reasons
  • What speaker is reported by another
  • What speaker is felt by his/ her sense

We can interpret these ideas by using some sentences with:

  • I think that…
  • They say that…
  • It seems…
  • As a result…

Givón thinks that epistemic modality is built by evident and thinking ability. Here, we can say more about proposition which is not clear because it is used to show a statement which is a current affair, foreground or background. For instance, “They say the match has been called off.” “The math-called off”- in the first listening, listener perhaps think that there is no subjective in this word. Specially, the speaker does not show any commitments in his word but only gives the problem by evident “they say”. It seems that subjective modality does not appear here. However, this is also seen a type of commitment because giving the evident is a commitment which has degree-indirect commitment.

In short, epistemic modality gives the status of the speaker for the truth what he says which is based on evidences of judgments he takes.


Deontic is also a type of modality which is the dimension of: obligation, permission, prohibition, etc.


– You mustn’t do it – it’s against the law.

– Bệnh nhân cần được yên tÄ©nh.

Through these examples here, we can see that deontic can be characterized as necessity-based or obligation-based. According to Nguyen Hoa, it is concerned with action and contains an element of will. In the sentence, for instance, “you mustn’t do it – it’s against the law”, it wants to say the obligation of the action: “don’t do” – it is necessary because if you do it, you will break the rules. Obligation and different degree of obligation can be express by other verbs of adjectives as well. In English, speaker can say “need to/ ought to/ have to/ should/ can/ must/etc” while in Vietnamese, speaker can use “bắt buá»™c, phải, có thể, cần, hứa…”

  • You must complete your homework before you go to school.
  • Con phải làm xong bài tập về nhà rồi má»›i được Ä‘i chÆ¡i nhé.

According to Nguyen Hoa, there will have many grammatical types of deontic modality. The first type consists of imperatives and directives “where we try to get people to do things”. To illustrate, we have seen two examples:

Ex: You ought to leave now.(1)

Nó phải Ä‘i ngủ sá»›m. (2)

Both of them mean getting listener to do action “leave” (1) and “go to bed” (2). Subjects must be compulsory, not deny or postpone the given request.

Another type is commissives “where commit ourselves to do things” which surface as declaratives since they concerned with action.

Ex: I will give you a hand.(3)

Tôi hứasẽ có mặt Ä‘úng giờ.(4)

These sentences here present the undertaking of the speaker. However, speaker cannot do the action in the future while (1) and (2) speaker obligates this action.

By explaining the above, epistemic modality is interested in the truth, the belief of knowledge.  In contrast, deontic modality is interested in the action. For example:

  1. You should do your homework.
  2. You must do your homework.
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In these examples, the participants are urges as expressed by the subjects of the sentences, to changing degrees, to form an action.



          The study was given out with the qualitative and quantitative approaches so as to response its aims and objectives. The research design is planned to carry out such important things as:

  • Describing and comparing the collected data for finding out the types of modality.
  • Finding out the showing types of modality through the point of grammar structures in languages.


        In order to get the aims and objectives of the study, the descriptive and contrastive methods are used in connection with the qualitative and quantitative approaches. The descriptive method describes the types of modality in languages. Besides, the comparative methods is used to find out the similarities as well as the differences in both of types.


          In this study, about some sentences in English and in Vietnamese) were collected from English and Vietnamese from the real life, books.


          To meet the demands of the aims and objectives, samples of modality in English and Vietnamese were collected. All of these samples were gathered from a lot of words on different documental collections.


Data analysis is considered to be a very important part to point out the modality consists of the following steps:

– Describing qualitatively and quantitatively the data collected.

  • Using sentences to analyze the linguistic features of modality
  • Comparing and finding out the similarities and differences between the epistemic modality and deontic modality


The study procedures were carried out as follows:

  • Reviewing the previous studies thoroughly and identifying the research scope.
  • Collecting sentences from the real life, books.
  • Picking out some sentences’ explanation in English languages.
  • Comparing and pointing out the similarities and differences in types of modality.


    In terms of reliability, the data are collected from in the circumstances in the real life( ensure about grammar) and collected from the books with the name of author, the time, the place of publication where the quotation comes from. It means that the quality of the data is reliable. Besides, the findings and conclusions in the study are taken from the analysis of frequency of samples and proofs concerned without any prejudices and presuppositions. For this reason, the objectivity of the study is assured.

  All collected sentences  in this thesis could be representative. In addition, the analyses in the study have always been conducted in the light of theoretical background to ensure the quality of the study.


In short, such parts as research design, data collection and data analysis are mentioned in detail in this chapter. Moreover, research procedures as well as reliability and validity are also presented specifically. Thus, the discussion of findings in chapter 4 could be described and compared scientifically thanks to the careful and reasonable preparation of this chapter.


Showing types of modality in performing sentences

How do epistemic modality and deontic modality represent in systems of sentence meaning. It is used to form strong expression or to evoke the mind of the words. In contrast, in the term of grammar to create a sentence, there are various different points of grammatical theory. So, this study will present some points of view where modality is shown in grammar system to perform a sentence with complete meaning about epistemic or deontic modality.

4.1 Personal modality

According to Quirk’s classification, there is another subcomponent of the interpersonal related to those features involving the speaker’s own contribution to the representational meaning of the sentence.

4.1.1 Form – modality markers

According to Nguyen Hoa, the speaker can participate by offering his comment on the form f what he is saying, defining in some way under what condition he is speaking. For examples:

Nói thẳng, cô ấy là người ích kỉ. (1)

Frankly, I’m tired. (2)

In these Vietnamese and English sentences, speaker has a personal attitude for a person who both speaker and listener know to give comment (1). In the second example, similarity speaker also shows his own attitude. We can see that epistemic modality in this sentence because it shows the speaker’s belief with the truth in the sentence.

We have modal adverbs to make the form-modality markers : frankly, confidentially, generally, honestly, candidly…


Personally, I don’t like your plan.

4.1.2 Content-modality markers

Nguyen Hoa also explains more about this issue. He says that the speaker can give comment on the extent to which he believes that what he is saying is true. For example:

“To our surprise, he arrived home late.”

(Nguyen Hoa, 2004, p.181)

In this example, speaker expresses his attitude on the extent “to our surprise” to which he is saying. Here only has “our” – it means the limited field in someone (consist of speaker and listeners staying in this time)

In the content- modality markers, it is divided into two types and each type has some words to indicate modality more easily. The first type is the degree of belief:

Ex: Surely, he can solve his problem by himself. (I am sure that…)

→ Express primarily a subjective view on the truth of what he is saying is truth: certainly, admittedly, surely, undeniably, undoubtedly, unquestionably.

Ex: Clearly, he can solve his problem by himself. ( It’s clear to me that…)

→ Markers of degree of convictions as open to objective evidence: clearly, evidently, obviously, plainly.

Ex: Technically, he can solve his problem by himself.

→ Markers of reality or lack of reality in what is said: actually, officially, technically, theoretically.

The second type is comment other than on the truth value of what is said.

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Without necessary implication that the judgement applies to the subject of the sentence or indeed to the speaker.

Ex: Hopefully, John returned home yesterday.

-> John was hopeful in doing so

-> That someone else was hopeful as a result of John’s action.

Other markers: annoyingly, curiously, funnily enough, happily, hopefully, luckily, naturally, surprisingly

– With an implication that the judgement applies to the subject of the sentence.

Ex:     Wisely, John returned home yesterday.

-> The speaker considers the action as wise and he also considers John wise for doing the action.

Other markers: wrongly, rightly.

4.2 Modal lexical verbs

Palmer (1986, p. 183) considered: “in some languages such as English for one, there exist some “modal” lexical verbs with complement clauses which can be used performatively to indicate the attitudes and opinions of the speaker.” mostly verbs with a 1st subject. For instances:

I believe that he will become a good student. (epistemic)

“That he will become a good student” in the sentence is the object of the main verb “believe”. This verb expresses the thinking of the speaker. So, this sentence creates the epistemic modality. It is the same the above example, we has another sentence:

I request you to clean your room immediately.  (deontic)

It is interested that the form of this sentence is the same the form of the above sentence. “You to clean your room immediately” is the objective of the main verb of the sentence “request”. However, this sentence here brings the deontic modality because it has the action’s concentration.

4.3 Modality in subordinate clause

All English learners know that subordinate clause consists of nominal clause, adverbial clause and adjectival clause. How do we indicate modality in subordinate clause? We have example below:

I   believe   that she did the right thing.

The verb “believe” is a lexical verb, and it expresses belief. The clause “that she did the right thing” is a subordinate clause and shows the belief about what. It presents the belief more than the action or it is the epistemic modality. By this explanation, the subordinate clause presents the proposition whereas the main lexical verb indicates modality.


How to distinguish between epistemic modality and deontic modality in modal words?

English is a language which is rather rich in modal words, especially modal verbs such as:“may, might, will, would, should, must, ought to, need, can, could”.

These verbs have a number of meanings, for example, the verb “MUST” can express both epistemic and deontic modality:

a. Heaven must be at work now.

→ “must” expresses a strong commitment on the part of the speaker to the truth of the proposition. (Heaven is at work.)

b. You must finish your homework before going to bed.

→It is about an obligation on the part of the person denoted by you, the statement is about action to be accomplished. (You do your homework.)

For modal verbs in the past, deontic modality also is also expressed in the past action. For instance:

“You should have gone to the meeting yesterday”

(Hiep (2007),cited on Lyons, p.824)

Deontic modality is presented in the appreciation with the action in the past. In this utterance, speaker does not obligate listener to go to the yesterday meeting, he only confirms that in the point before the present time, listener was in the circumstance which listener had to go to the meeting. Therefore, we did the action which was a confirmation.

In which general, we can admit the distinguishing between epistemic modality and deontic modality which is based on three 3 items: necessary, ability and reality.

This chapter gives a conclusion for this study. First, the issues given in this assignment are discussed. Second, the recommendations and suggestions for further study are made. In general, it is quite difficult to understand fully and profoundly those types because they relate to the grammar feature, ways to use different languages in the real life. The difficulty in learning a language is to understand the meaning of it exactly because the meaning of a word is diversified when it is used to form a sentence. English is a language spoken in many countries and modality shown is multiform. This is based on the purpose of the user. This study indicates the interesting point of modality in language, especially in English and Vietnamese a little. By illustration, language learners can understand more about researching with the sides of meaning related to two types of modality.

All what have been referred to in this paper come from the limited  understanding and ability. It is, however, hoped that this study will be a small contribution to figure out the interesting significance of the modality of the present international language and a reference to those who are interested in learning and researching language.

Bybee, J. (1985). Morphology. Armsterdam: Benjamins.

Frawley, & Charles, C. (1992). Linguistic semantics. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Hiep, N. V. (2007). Mot so pham tru tinh thai trong ngong ngu. Tap chi Ngon Ngu.

Hoa, N. (2004). Understanding English Semantics. Ha Noi: Nxb. ĐHQG Hà Ná»™i.

Palmer, F. R. (1986). Mood and Modality. Cambridge: CPU.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge and New York: CPU.

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