A Filipina acquaintance of mine, who until recently taught English in an Asian city, e-mailed me recently giving vent to her exasperation over the misuse of the modal auxiliaries in newspaper reportage and notices in the Philippines.
Isabel E. wrote: “Can you explain the strong preference of Pinoy writers for ‘would’ and ‘could’ in their newspaper reports and stories?
“Today at the condo where we live, there’s a notice in the bulletin board that reads ‘The gym would be closed on August 5-6 for repainting.’ Newspaper reports in both Cebu and Manila write stuff like ‘Duterte would meet with LGU leaders at the end of the month’ and ‘The Mactan mayor announced he could impose new traffic rules effective immediately.’
“Is this because English is really a second language to most folks that they often get stymied by its grammar rules? Are too many local English teachers so miseducated that they themselves are unsure of their English grammar and syntax?
“It’s hard not to grit one’s teeth in annoyance.”
My reply to Isabel E.:
I perfectly understand your annoyance over the recurrent misuse of the modal auxiliaries ‘could’ and ‘would’ in Philippine newspaper reportage, and you are absolutely correct in saying that Filipinos often get stymied in their usage because English is indeed a second language to most of them. However, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this grammar misuse arises because their English teachers were themselves unsure of their English grammar and syntax. Rather, I’d say that the teaching of English in the country’s schools is not focused and intensive enough to give both teacher and learner an adequate grasp of how the modal auxiliaries work.
Before going into the nitty-gritty of the usage of “could” and “would” in the sentences you presented, I therefore suggest that we first do a quick review of the modal auxiliaries, or modals for short. Recall that modals are function words that work with verbs to convey various shades of necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission, possibility, or conditionality, and that it’s most instructive to discuss them in the context of the modal-pairs “will” and “would,” “can” and “could,” and “shall” and “should.” This early, it’s also very important to understand that unlike the stand-alone verb “be” or its conjugations “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were,” the modals are not meant for sentences that state simple facts or absolute certainties.
We’ll start with the basic uses of modals and take up later their usage in conditional statements, possibilities, politesse, and several other senses.
“Will” and “would.” The verbal auxiliary “will” is commonly used for expressing simple futurity, as in “We will go to Tokyo next week.” As a modal, however, “will” conveys choice, willingness, intention, consent, or habitual or customary action. Choice: “I will buy a townhouse instead of a condominium unit.” Willingness: “She will join you if you wish.” Intention: “I will prove you wrong.” Consent: “Yes, the school will admit you.” Habitual or customary action: “She will get angry over such trivial matters.”
In the past tense, the modal “will” inflects to “would.” Choice: “When times were good, we would stay in five-star rather than three-star hotels.” Willingness: “During my probation, I would do whatever my superior asked me to do.” Habitual or customary action: “After losing in the elections, Alice would take no visitors altogether.”
“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. Present ability: “She can rouse crowds effortlessly.” Past ability: “By then she could no longer see.” Present possibility: “He can handle the work load.” Past possibility: “I couldn’t control myself that night.” Permission: “You can leave now.” Potential: “With her looks, she can be a movie star.”
We will continue this discussion next week.
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