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Japanese EFL undergraduate students’ use of the epistemic modal verbs may, might, and could in academic writing

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>27/05/2024
<mark>Journal</mark>Language Learning in Higher Education
Issue number1
Number of pages20
Pages (from-to)21-40
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date8/05/24
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Modifying and hedging one’s claims appropriately is an important characteristic of academic writing. This study focuses on the three main English modal verbs used to express “epistemic possibility” to avoid making strong statements, viz., may, might, and could. The purpose of this corpus-based study is to explore modal verb usage by Japanese EFL undergraduate students and consider pedagogical implications of our findings. Our analysis suggests that the Japanese students’ use of these modal verbs, especially could, has a tendency to be informal and insufficiently academic. While the Japanese students use could very frequently, they do not use it sufficiently in the sense of “epistemic possibility”, and some of their use is inappropriate not just in academic English but in English more generally. The observed high frequency of could may be related to topics and may also be due to the influence of L1. We discuss different factors that may explain the findings, based mainly on the overview of factors impacting on EFL learners’ use of academic English offered by Gilquin and Paquot (2008). Too chatty: Learner academic writing and register variation. English Text Construction 1(1). 41–61), suggest several additions to this overview, and discuss implications for the instruction of these modal verbs in academic writing and in order to improve relevant teaching materials.