LAST week, we took up the modals “will” and “would” and “shall” and “should” as well as analyzed the modal usage of three sentences presented by a government officer, Mr. Edwin Bellen.
Let’s go back where we left off and evaluate the first of Mr. Bellen’s sentences using “should” and “shall”: “Should we yield to his demand or shall we wait until his last week in office?”
In such present-tense questions, the modals “should” and “shall” basically mean the same thing, with “should” tending to be consultative and “shall” tending to be suggestive. The speaker could very well use those modals the other way around: “Shall we yield to his demand or should we wait until his last week in office?” We really shouldn’t lose sleep over the distinction.
“Can” and “could.” These modals convey the idea of ability, possibility, permission, or potential; “can” is the present-tense form, “could” the past-tense form. Ability: “She can write novels.” “By then she could no longer write novels.” Possibility: “The team can win if its members are more disciplined.” Permission: “Can I go out with my playmates now?” Potential: “With his political acumen, he can be presidential timber.”
The modal “could” is also used to make a deferential or polite request, offer, or suggestion: “Could you tell me how to leave the Christmas party now without offending the boss?” But among social, age, or professional coequals, “can” is more suitable: “Can you tell me how to leave the Christmas party now without offending the boss?”
Now let’s analyze Mr. Bellen’s fourth sentence using modals: “‘Yes we can’ should be the motto of everyone who has a desire to win, since that motto could deliver votes.” Here everything’s in order: “can” denotes ability or potential, “should” denotes suggestion, and “could” denotes possibility.
Mr. Bellen’s fifth sentence using modals is admittedly the toughest to analyze: “I could have gotten a raw deal had I allowed him to bring with him his lawyers who would insist they should come along.”
That construction, I’ll say offhand, is grammatically faulty. It’s a mixed third conditional, the type that denotes a desired but unreal present situation or outcome—meaning that it didn’t actually happen—because an expected situation or action in the past likewise didn’t happen.
This type of sentence usually has the condition in the form “if + verb in the past perfect” and an unreal outcome in the form “would/could + verb in the present perfect,” as in this example: “If she had told me about her problem, I would/could have lent her the money she needed.” It has this alternative construction that doesn’t use “if”: “Had she told me about her problem, I would/could have lent her the money she needed.”
Note that Mr. Bellen’s conditional sentence uses the normal, uninverted construction of that alternative form: “I could have gotten a raw deal had I allowed him to bring with him his lawyers who would insist they should come along.” (What the speaker is saying is that he actually got a good deal because he didn’t allow the other party to bring his lawyers.)
But the problem is that it’s grammar-perfect only up to the word “lawyers.” The relative clause “who would insist they should come along” is (a) faulty in tense, thus wrongly conveying the idea that the lawyers still intend to insist of coming along long after the fact; and (b) suffers from redundancy by still using “should” even if the verb “insist” by itself already provides the needed modality.
Indeed, that sentence would have been grammar-perfect all the way had that relative clause used the past progressive “were insisting” and dropped “should” altogether: “I could have gotten a raw deal had I allowed him to bring with him his lawyers who were insisting they come along.”
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