What is it about?

Modal verbs, such as "shall" and "may," are overwhelmingly used in policies despite their potential for ambiguity. This study analyzes the role of modals in policies using opioid legislation as a case study. To do this, I answer the question: How do policymakers use modals to address the US opioid crisis, knowing very well that their language could result in various interpretations?

Featured Image

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.

Dr. Peter Joseph Torres
Arizona State University

Read the Original

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.
You can read the full text:



The following have contributed to this page