What is a modal verb?

The words "modal verbs" at the top. Then below are the following words set in white circles against a pink background: may, should, will, must, can, would, might.

These are examples of modal verbs.

Modal verbs are verbs used to express ability, obligation, permission, or possibility. Common modal verbs include can, might, may, must, will, would, and should. They are a type of auxiliary verb (otherwise known as a “helping verb”), which means they have to be paired with a main verb to work. For example, in the sentence “I can park the car here,” park is the main verb and can is the modal verb paired with it. Here are some examples of modal verbs in action:

  • Can can mean either to express ability or to ask permission.
    • I can go to the store later.
    • Can I use the car today?
  • May can mean either to express possibility or to ask permission.
    • I may talk to him tomorrow.
    • May I go to the bathroom?
  • Must can mean either to express obligation or to express strong belief.
    • She must tell the truth.
    • He must be almost finished with the project by now.
  • Should means to give advice.
    • He should buy the red sweater.
  • Would means to request or offer, and it can also be used in if sentences.
    • Would you mind getting the door for me?
    • If I were her, I would.

Modal verbs don’t change their form, and they have no infinitive (the verb with the word “to” in front of it, as in to sleep or to walk) or participle (a form of a verb similar to an adjective or adverb that functions as an adjective, as in swimming or sitting).

Maud Grauer is an editor and content creator for Dot and Dash, LLC.  

Sign up for the Dot and Dash newsletter and get writing tips and tricks, exclusive deals,  and the inside scoop on new products and services. Sign up here.

Follow Dot and Dash on social media.
Twitter: @GrammarParty
Instagram: @dot_and_dash_llc
Facebook: facebook.com/dotanddashllc
Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/dotanddashllc




Is “data” singular or plural?


Man with laptop. Word bubble says: Hey, girl. Let's check out some data together

Buckle up, folks. People have strong feelings about whether to treat “data” as a singular or plural noun. And we are going to talk all about it today.

Technically, “datum” is the singular version, and “data” is the plural version.

This means—technically—“data” takes a plural version of a verb.


The data are correct.
The data show these numbers.
The data illustrate the findings.

But . . . these days, most people treat “data” as if it were singular. So they use a singular verb with it.


The data is correct.
The data shows these numbers.
The data illustrates the findings.

This is where you have to make a decision. Are you going to be a stickler and fight for “data” as a plural, or are you going to buckle under peer pressure and treat it as singular?

You are entitled to your own thoughts about this. But guess what? Language does change. It evolves. For instance, we don’t use “decimate” to mean “to destroy by one tenth” anymore, right? Or what about “nice”? Once upon a time four centuries ago, it meant “foolish and ignorant.” And once upon a time seven centuries ago, “girl” meant a “small child,” whether they were female or male.

So if you want to treat “data” as a singular noun, go for it. It’s true that the times they are a-changing. And if you want to treat “data” as plural, go for it, too. You’re not incorrect, but know you may find people who think you are.

Erin Servais is a book editor, author coach, and founder of Dot and Dash LLC, an author-services company. She takes authors from the plotting and planning phase, all the way through editing and marketing. To learn more, check out her website: www.dotanddashllc.com. You can also email her at Erin@dotanddashllc.com.

Stigma and “disabled” words

Today we have a special guest blogger. Jothy Rosenberg is one of my favorite people on the planet. A few years ago, I edited his memoir, Who Says I Can’t, which is about his surviving and thriving after cancer caused his leg to be amputated. Jothy has since become a campaigner for people with disabilities and is now working on a documentary, called Who Says Roseann Can’t Run, which will show the journey of a woman, whose leg had to be amputated after the Boston bombing, as she learns to run again with her prosthetic leg.

Jothy has started a Kickstarter funding project for the film. Please consider supporting this film by donating here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whosaysicant/who-says-roseann-cant-run-a-new-documentary

Take it away, Jothy.

I am guest posting here on Erin’s blog about grammar. Erin is about much more than grammar; grammar is just a hobby for her. She is all about telling a great story. That is why I keep wanting Erin to edit things I write. But she is right, grammar is a means to that end. In between grammar—the mechanical aspects of language and writing—and great storytelling is deeper, sometimes hidden, meaning in the words we use to tell a story.

I have been an amputee for forty years, and a lot has changed in how we express my “situation” in those many years. Back in the day, as they like to say now, here in this country, and unfortunately still today in many countries, having a difference about you physically or mentally meant being ostracized and shunned. Way, way back in early human civilization, this made some sense either because it meant you could not help the tribe obtain food and defend itself, or because it meant you had a genetic defect that should not be passed on to future generations. But we are supposed to be more evolved than either of these reasons now, so even forty years ago, it should have not been so difficult for a sixteen year old who’d lost his leg to get through a day of high school.

For many years, in spite of either being on crutches or walking on a pretty primitive prosthetic leg, I refused to get a handicapped car placard because I did not want to be associated with that word. I also would have nothing to do with “support groups” of others who had lost a limb because I did not want to be associated with “those people.” I wanted to be “normal.” Of course, that’s ludicrous. There is no normal and certainly not for someone who goes from having two legs to suddenly having one; a new normal slowly emerges that that person gets to—no, has to—shape.

I also had a lot of trouble with the word “disabled.” Think about that word. The prefix “dis-” means “not” or “negation” so “dis-abled” means “not abled.” That is pretty harsh. And if you knew me as the double-black-diamond skier, swimmer from Alcatraz, and century bike rider all with one leg and one lung, you would be hard-pressed to say I was “not abled.” I am not alone. Would you say Oscar Pistorius (murder allegations aside), who got admitted into the “able-bodied” Olympics, was not abled? We do know better now. And to strike back, in my view misguidedly, many who have a physical change to their bodies rebel vehemently against this word and instead make up new words like “differently-abled,” as if they are able to bend spoons like they are someone out of X-Men. I admit, it took me about twenty-five years to finally relax about all of this and stop caring about these semantics, so I understand those who are fresh and whose sensibilities are still quite raw do not want labels. But it’s important not to become like PETA either: no matter how great your cause, if you become too militant about anything, you alienate the rest of the world and lose the chance to further your cause.

I now have the pleasure of working with Roseann Sdoia, an amputee who became so when the second bomb at the Boston Marathon went off right next to her and so badly damaged her right leg that she had to have it amputated above the knee. She also got shrapnel damage to her left leg (which is still working okay) and both her eardrums were blown out. She was saved by a Boston fire fighter, who got her quickly into an ambulance and held her hand all the way to the hospital. It’s cool, and kind of cute, that they are now a very devoted couple. When someone recently called out when Roseann was going down the sidewalk, “Clear a path. A handicapped person is coming through,” her boyfriend, not even missing a beat, said, “She’s not handicapped, she’s hand-capable.” Because this is all very fresh with Roseann, and her self-esteem has taken as huge a beating as her body, this statement by her boyfriend was not just helpful, it was essential. She needs to hear that, and the rest of us need to be sensitive to her need to hear that. Perhaps in twenty-five years she, too, will relax about these semantics, but in the meantime, sensitivity should be something we can all learn in the words we use. After all, you two-leggers, we one-leggers just have to stick together.

If you would like to support a new documentary being filmed about Roseann’s journey from barely surviving last April’s horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon to running again, please consider supporting our Kickstarter campaign at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whosaysicant/who-says-roseann-cant-run-a-new-documentary

Are since and because interchangeable?

since: from a past time until now; after a time in the past; before the present time
because: for the reason that

Though in the definition listed above since appears to relate only to time, in reality, people use it the same as because to imply cause.

Notice the similarities in these two sentences:

Since he ate cookies, Charlie is a happy boy.
Because he ate cookies, Charlie is a happy boy.

In the sentences, both since and because are helping us show the cause of Charlie’s happiness: eating cookies.

However, using since and because interchangeably can cause problems when it is unclear whether since is referring to time or to cause.

Notice this sentence:

Since he slayed the dragon, Charlie got measles.

In this sentence, it is unclear whether Charlie got measles as a direct result of (caused by) killing the dragon or if he simply contracted measles in the period of time after killing the dragon (not caused by the killing).

If we used because in the sentence above, we would know the dragon slaying directly caused his measles. As it is written with since, the causation is unclear.

To avoid confusion, it is best to limit since to time elements and not use it interchangeably with because. Because is the best choice to indicate directly the reason something happened.

Anxious or eager?

anxious: characterized by extreme uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about some contingency

“I am so anxious to see you!”

How many times have you heard or said this? Most of the time, anxious was probably not the word to use.

Say your best friend is about to arrive for an out-of-town visit. You are more likely to be eager or excited for her visit than anxious. Anxious has a negative connotation. Anxious means you are in a fit of hand-wringing nervousness, considering all that could go wrong. If you are simply happy for your friend to come and are expecting the trip to go smoothly, then you are not anxious; you are just excited and eager.

Here are examples of anxious, excited, and eager used the correct way:

I am excited to get my package in the mail.
I am eager for my trip to the Bahamas.
I am anxious that this airplane will crash.

Note that the first two sentences have positive connotations, and the second has a negative connotation.

Can these words be interchangeable?
There has been a trend of using anxious, eager, and excited interchangeably. However, I still think there should be a distinction. Remember that anxiety is a medical condition, which often requires medication and treatment. It can be a very serious and life-altering condition for those who have it. Using the word so casually (and incorrectly) downplays, in my opinion, its severity. People who don’t have anxiety already tend to not understand how difficult living with a form of anxiety can be. Misusing it in our speech adds to this confusion.

In each sentence is the word anxious. Determine in each sentence if the word is used correctly.

1. Edwin is anxious that his dinner plans will fall through.
2. Edwin is anxious to eat his ice cream.
3. Edwin is anxious for the first day of school, thinking of all that could go wrong.
4. Edwin is anxious to open his birthday present.

1. correct 2. incorrect 3. correct 4. incorrect