language and how we think

The battle of the English “moods”

As an English teacher in the Peace Corps, I spend a lot of time explaining points of grammar I never thought about or noticed before. I’ve become adept at explaining tenses and certain points in particular because I’ve either studied them or am asked them over and over, but still every once in a while a new little rule or concept pops up that intrigues me.

Sometimes I’m simply stumped, like when one of my counterparts asked how she should know if a certain verb is followed by a gerund or the infinitive. (For example, we say “I enjoy playing soccer,” but “I want to play every day.” It’s wrong to say, “I enjoy to play soccer. I want playing every day.” But why, and how can you be sure which form to use following newly learned verbs??? I found the answer, but it took a little googling…and not even the BBC’s website had the right answer!)

Some questions make me see English in a whole new way, revealing culture and the way we think through our language.

The use of modals raises just a point. Modals are simply words that set the mood of our verbs, like “can” or “should” and can’t be conjugated on their own. (In a bit you’ll see the word “want” which is technically not a modal; however, it does express modality so I’ve included it J.)

It’s easy to see the modals (moods) at work when you compare these sentences:

  • I should prepare my lessons.
  • I can prepare my lessons.
  • I want to prepare my lessons.
  • I will prepare my lessons.

In the first example “should” implies it would be good if I prepared them, but maybe I will and maybe I won’t.

The second simply denotes ability. I am able to prepare them, but I may or may not choose to.

The third shows my desire. I wish to prepare my lessons. I would like to get them done, but there still may be factors preventing me from doing so.

The last example is the only one where we know I will get the lessons prepared. For sure, I will prepare my lessons, whether or not I want to, should do, or even at present have the ability to.

The battle at Grammar Field

How and when we use should, can, will and want to, tells us a lot about our thinking process, what we value, and how we see the world.

The first task is to listen carefully to which modals you find yourself saying.

I spend too much time on the word “should.”

  • “I really should be more involved.”
  • “I should make handouts for that training I’m giving.”
  • “I should add an extra club for students preparing for their national exams…”
  • And on and on ad nauseam

The problem with this is that I don’t want to.

My modals do battle. Should and want raise their coats of arms and march off to war where should almost always takes the decisive victory. At the very least they reach some kind of uncomfortable truce where should eventually wins by war of attrition anyway. Want starts to die a slow and painful death before surrendering in full under the flag of should.

In some cases should “should” win out over your Wants. You can’t always live a selfish life; I’m not arguing to always follow the whims of your desires.

But when I stop and listen to the situations where I use these words, I find there are all sorts of things I feel I should be doing, and I end up letting should drive my actions out of guilt.

Taking charge

Being aware of the language you use is half the battle. After recognizing what kinds of words you’re telling yourself, the next step in reclaiming control of your life is to make purposeful decisions in how you use these words.

  • There are truly very few situations where should must be your master. You should eat food. You should show up to work most of the time. But, those teachers will live if there’s no handout for the training tomorrow.
  • Can is powerful when you use it in focused ways. You are capable of a lot more than you think.
  • Want helps you discover your desires and leads you to find more joy and satisfaction by spending more time doing what you enjoy.
  • And will helps us go about our daily lives with determination and action. It helps you separate what you will do from what you choose not to do.

Whether your specialty is in teaching English or in another sector of the Peace Corps, placing yourself as Commander-in-chief in the grammar battle not only puts you in command of the English modals, but it puts you in a better mood too.