The Possibility Song (Modal Verbs)

Here is a brief little song – only one sentence – featuring the words of the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892).

Step 1

Play the song and ask learners to write down the 17 words that make up the lyric.

Key: For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.”

Step 2

Nice use of a modal verb in the past, John. But really, are these the saddest words?

Let’s compare… modality. Put students in pairs or groups and ask them to try out the following words as a replacement for “might”: could, couldn’t, shouldn’t, was supposed to, was not supposed to.

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It ________ have been.”

Each has a different meaning. The differences are often just nuances. But that’s how you understand the way these modal verbs work.

Finally, re-evaluate. Which of the modal verbs in that sentence is really the saddest in your opinion?

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