What is it about?

Modal verbs, such as "shall" and "may," are overwhelmingly used in policies despite their potential to be interpreted in many different ways. This study analyzes the role of modals in policies using legislation surrounding the opioid crisis as an example. To do this, I answer the question: How do policymakers linguistically address the US opioid crisis, knowing very well that their first line of defense is to legislate?

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Why is it important?

Understanding how modal verbs function in policies could help inform future policy writing to address societal concerns such as health-related pandemics, epidemics, etc.


I have always questioned the benefits of using too many modals in framing consequential issues such as health and public safety concerns—an issue that is common in legalese. While watching the US congress spend a significant amount of time debating the meaning of "shall" during a whistleblower testimony, I realized the need to point out the linguistic functions these modals serve in legal language.

Peter Joseph Torres
University of California, Davis

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This page is a summary of: The role of modals in policies: The US opioid crisis as a case study, Applied Corpus Linguistics, December 2021, Elsevier, DOI: 10.1016/j.acorp.2021.100008.
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