This is the first article of a series focusing on different grammar questions as illustrated by song lyrics. Lyrics are easily memorable, and they can provide examples as well as set phrases for students to learn. This article focuses on modal verbs: I’ve created a YouTube playlist to listen to while reading the article.
Modal verbs play an important part in English: the same sentence used with different, although seemingly close modal verbs, will have very different meanings. In this article, I focus on two characteristics of modals: the opposition between “epistemic” and “radical” value, and the case of modals followed by HAVE and the past particple.
Just one more thing before we start this grammar playlist: although they are often thought to be modals in their own right, several of them are actually the past form of other modals. WOULD is the past form of WILL, and SHOULD the past for of SHALL. When used in their past forms, modals express a lesser degree of their present counterpart. They can also be used to come across as less blunt. So I will be dealing with the following pairs: MAY/MIGHT, CAN/COULD, WILL/WOULD, SHALL/SHOULD, and MUST, which doesn’t have a past form.
Epistemic and radical value
Epistemic and radical are two linguistic terms which describe something English learners instinctively perceive: each modal can either express a degree of probability (epistemic value), or imply a degree of willingness on the part of the speaker (radical value). As this may seem slightly abstract, let’s move on to examples taken from popular songs.
Epistemic modals in songs
- ♫ You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for ♫ Billy Joel, You May Be Right
MAY here allows the persona to express the possibility that he is crazy… and to turn it around by suggesting that it’s what his lover is after. In any case, these are just hypotheses.
- ♫ I’m scared to death that she might be it, that the love is real, that the shoe might fit. She might just be my everything and beyond ♫ Leon Bridges, Beyond
In this song, MIGHT expresses what the persona’s love interest perhaps is. The modal is used to express both fear and desire at the thought of this possibility.
- ♫ I convinced myself that it just can’t be true, whatever you deny, I’ll believe, because I love you ♫ Jim Reeves, Angels Don’t Lie
CAN here expresses the impossibility, in the mind of the persona, for what he was told to be true. According to him, the probability that it is true is 0%… So the use of this epistemic CAN is illustrative of the idea that love is blind.
- ♫ The quiet walks, the noisy fun, the ballroom prize we almost won, we will have these moments to remember ♫ The Four Lads, Moments to Remember
The epistemic value of WILL is what we usually call… “the future!” WILL here refers to something that is certain to happen: no matter what happens, the protagonists of the song are certain to have good memories to hang on to in the future.
- ♫ Thought I told you that he would break your heart, he was no good for you from the start ♫ Anastacia & Faith Evans, I thought I told you that
Same as WILL in its epistemic sense, we’re dealing with a prediction, except that the modal has to be in the past form because “told” is, too.
- ♫ What shall we use to feel the empty spaces where we used to talk? ♫ Pink Floyds, Empty Spaces
Same as WILL in the epistemic sense, SHALL here hints at a future event that is bound to happen.
- ♫ Let’s all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago, your mother should know ♫ The Beatles, Your mother should know
SHOULD in the epistemic sense expresses a probability: given the age of the mother and the release date of the song, it is very likely that she knows it.
- ♫ You must think that I’m stupid, you must think that I’m a fool, you must think that I’m new to this ♫ Sam Smith, Too Good At Goodbyes
Here MUST has nothing to do with obligation, it expresses an idea of very strong probability. The persona imagines what his lover thinks of him, only to then explain why he would be wrong to think that.
Radical modals in songs
- ♫ You may say I’m a dreamer ♫ John Lennon, Imagine
Arguably, MAY could be said to have only an epistemic value here, but I would suggest that it also has a radical dimension: John knows that people will make fun of him for having such dreams about the world, but he doesn’t care, he even allows and encourages them to do so, only to prove them wrong more efficiently once his project becomes reality.
- ♫ I feel loved for the first time and I know that it’s true, I can tell by the look in your eyes ♫ Modjo, Lady
CAN in the radical sense expresses the idea that the speaker is able to do something. So here, the persona is able to know all about his love interest’s feelings just by looking in their eyes…
- ♫ I never really knew that she could dance like this, she makes a man want to speak Spanish ♫ Shakira & Wyclef Jean, Hips Don’t Lie
Same as CAN in the radical sense: we’re dealing with one of the skills of this girl, except that it has to be in the past form because “knew” is, too.
- ♫ I will always love you ♫ Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
When Whitney tells the addressee of her song that she WILL always love them, it is not just a way of making plans for the future. It is also a promise, a personal statement of hers.
- ♫ I won’t go ♫ Amy Winehouse, Rehab
Similarly, when Amy tells us that she is not going to go to rehab, she is not just saying that it WILL not happen, she expresses her refusal to go.
- ♫ Would you believe me when I tell you you’re the queen of my heart ♫ Nirvana, Love Buzz
Here the persona is asking his love interest to believe him, it’s not a genuine question. He is pleading for her to believe him. With an epistemic WOULD, the question would be “would you believe me if I told you?”
- ♫ We shall overcome ♫ Joan Baez, We Shall Overcome
The lyrics of this song are made motivational, they are almost performative: if we say it and believe it, then we SHALL overcome.
- ♫ Should I stay or should I go? ♫ The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go
Clearly here the question has nothing to do with probability, and everything to do with the persona’s decision.
- ♫ The show must go on ♫ Queen, The Show Must Go On
No matter what happens, and how hard it is, it is not an option for the show to stop. The obligation is absolute, inescapable.
Modals followed by HAVE and the past participle
If the modal is followed by HAVE and the past participle, then the sentence expresses something completely different from the basic meanings given above, with wide variations of meaning depending on the modal at stake.
✧ It may have been in bits and pieces, but I gave you the best of me ✧ Jim Morrison
This one is not actually featured in a song, but it’s a quote by Jim Morrison. The modal gives to the sentence its full strength: he acknowledges that his heart was flawed, but at the same time takes pride in his giving it to his lover.
18. ♫ Had it been another day I might have looked the other way and I would have never been aware ♫ The Beatles, I’ve Just Seen A Face
Here the two modals are used to express a counterfactual idea. On a very positive note, the persona is grateful for having just met this wonderful woman, and is terrified at the thought of what his life could have been if he had not. The modals combined with HAVE here express the magic dimension of a chance encounter and the love that can grow from it.
19. ♫ This cannot have been the plan, to be exactly where I am ♫ Stephen Gordon, Fall for You
The persona reflects on where he stands, and can’t quite believe the mediocrity of his stiuation… The combination of CAN + NOT + HAVE + past participle indicates that reality, to him, is such that it is impossible that it follows a longstanding plan.
20. ♫ We could have had it all ♫ Adele, Rolling in the Deep.
If things had been different, if you hadn’t behaved as you did… we would have been happy together, but we aren’t. Here the modal CAN in the past, combined with HAVE and past participle expresses a counterfactual reality, which is the essence of many love songs.
21. ♫ I’ll try and I’ll try girl to love you, and when we die you will have loved too ♫ Social Distorsion, Let It Be Me
In order to convince this girl to love him, the persona explains to her what the benefts of this relationship will be: when she is old and looks back at her life, she will have a love story to remember. So the use of WILL + HAVE + past participle allows the persona to depict a future moment of remembrance.
✧ We shall have loved each other truly ✧ Gustave Flaubert, L’Education Sentimentale
This example works pretty much the same way as the previous one, with the solemnity bestowed by SHALL. As Victor Brombert says in his analysis of the novel, this combination of SHALL and HAVE (in translation), “indicates not merely anticipated retrospection, but the kind of retrospection from a final and almost hypotheically aloof vantage point capable of bestowing upon the past the beauty that belongs exclusively to supreme destinies.”
22. ♫ A love that should have lasted years ♫ The Beatles, For No One
Again, a typical break-up song: the persona expresses what was meant to happen, but didn’t. Here the use of the modal is key to the melancholy of the song.
23. ♫ It must have been love but it’s over now, it must have been good but I lost it somehow ♫ Roxette, It Must Have Been Love
In this one the persona realizes once it’s over that the relationship was a love story… She retrospectively makes a hypothesis about something that happened in the past, not being sure about her own feelings.
I hope you enjoyed it! The songs are picked according to their grammatical relevance and my personal knowledge and taste – feel free to comment with examples from other songs or suggestions of grammar questions that you would like to be addressed in future posts. Thank you!!