Modal verbs are more commonly misused to imply intellectual or moral superiority and feed the delusion that anyone actually cares what the speaker or writer is saying. My profession, editorial writing, is a notorious abuser in that way.
Regular readers know that last year this page banned the use of “hypocrisy,” a perfectly innocent word of the most respectable Greek origin. Why? This generation of politicians has rendered it meaningless.
Our work, however, is not finished.
We on the copy desk of life are trying mightily to eliminate what grammarians call “modal verbs.” These are verbs used to express modality (properties such as possibility, obligation, etc.) They are used to tell others what they “should,” “shall,” “may,” “might,” “ought,” “need,” “could,” “had better,” and “must” do.
Sadly, most of what comes across our desk even from the national conservative press not only uses modal verbs profusely but makes arguments that depend heavily on modality for their rationale (“Trump must be reelected”). That is, they use only emotion rather than ask penetrating questions that might point to actual solutions. Cartoons in the New Yorker have a modal tone.
That is not to say modal verbs might not be useful in a different time, a different situation. When, for example, you are teaching your teenager to warm up pizza and the oven begins to smoke and flame you might say something like, ”You should read the directions before you put the pizza in the oven.” Or in the negative, “Maybe you shouldn’t try that when you’re home alone.”
That is a situation where everyone is more or less headed in the same direction (eating pizza) and the task is framed in easily definable absolutes (oven temperature, time setting). But as a nation, most agree, we are not in such a situation.
Modal verbs are more misused to imply intellectual or moral superiority and feed the delusion that anyone actually cares what the speaker or writer is saying. My profession, editorial writing, is a notorious abuser in that way.
Here’s a little research project: A search of the digital Indianapolis Star, always a ready example for society heading in the wrong direction, for just two basic modals, “should” and “must.” Here is what you get:
“Republicans pushed through Indiana abortion law, now they must address fallout.”
“Indiana senators must protect kids from harmful online content.”
“Five questions the Colts must answer to become a contender in 2022.”
“Legislators must provide support to women and families.”
“As abortion remains center stage in Indiana, renewed focus should focus on maternal and infant mortality and policies to save lives.”
“Instead of acting shocked and offering trite platitudes, politicians should take action against gun violence and end mass shootings in Indiana.”
“Indiana lawmakers should advance pro-life culture with gun-control legislation.”
“Indiana lawmakers must listen to all voices on abortion during special session.”
You get the idea. None of the inexpert journalists throwing those modal verbs around had any intention of actually doing anything even though they describe a society on the verge of ruin. Nor did they put forward any concrete, untried ideas about what might be done by others.
My example of moment is the rising plea that we “must” do something about affordable housing, the most popular lament being that rents are too high and we “should” do something about them.
After all, all of us share the emotional reaction to a rent or mortgage increase (they are somewhat the same thing, by the way). But what would be helpful is for the editors to dry their tears of sympathy long enough to look into what actually happens when you “must” do something about high rents, i.e., rent control.
New York City is the model for that. It has had stabilized rents for decades now. The New York Post reported recently that rent control is working in the sense that the rent on a one-bedroom apartment has been stabilized at $1,725. But it is not working in the sense that the broker’s fee on signing the lease for that same apartment is $20,000.
People who want to do something about affordable housing have no grasp of how affordable housing is made. It is not by government fiat or project but by reducing the costs of a free market providing it. They must understand that.
Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected]