Modality: other modal words and expressions

Other modal words

Apart from modal verbs, there are a lot of words which also express modality. They are words which express degrees of certainty or obligation.

Expressing degrees of certainty

Adjectives: possible, probable, certain, sure, likely, unlikely, definite, clear, obvious

Adverbs: possibly, probably, certainly, surely, definitely, clearly, obviously

Expressing degrees of obligation

Adjectives: necessary, compulsory, obligatory, essential

Adverbs: necessarily, perhaps, maybe

[on the phone]

Is it possible to ring us back when my husband is home? (or Can/could you (possibly) ring us back when my husband is home?)

I’m thinking of possibly buying a house now. (I might buy a house.)

[talking about a computer]


It’s a good machine.


Yeah. It certainly is. (I agree completely.)

Necessarily is often used with not.

Erm I met Gary in Wales when I was at university there and we ideally wanted to stay in Wales. Not necessarily in South Wales. (not obligatory – it can be South Wales or in another part of Wales)

Other modal expressions

Spoken English:

These expressions are also very common in informal speaking: for certain, for sure, for definite:

It’s nice to get something for free, that’s for sure.


When’s the wedding going to be? April?


April the seventeenth for definite.

We often use for certain for sure/for definite with know:

We think Graham is coming. We don’t know for certain. (or for sure/for definite)

Certainly and surely


Certainly and surely do not have the same meaning. We use certainly when we have no doubt about something. We use surely when we want agreement:

The car is certainly more comfortable than the bike. (I have no doubt about it.)

The car is surely more comfortable than the bike. (I’m not certain but this seems likely.)


When I go to town now in Cardiff, I don’t know anybody.


But, Richard, surely you’ve still got lots of friends here. (The speaker is asking for agreement with something that seems likely.)

Modality: expressions with be

Some expressions with be have modal meanings:

be to

be certain to

be meant to

be able to

be due to

be obliged to

be about to

be forced to

be set to

be allowed to

be going to

be supposed to

be bound to

be likely to/that

be sure to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *