Modality & Imperative Language

Learn how to analyze modality and imperative language for IB English

Read in 4 mins
Lang Lit


High modality: “I must have an ice cream, or else!”
Low modality: “You know, I could have an ice cream, but …”

Modality is a measure of certainty, and it's expressed through words like these.

High modality words

Low modality words





"need to"


"have to"




High modality creates an authoritative and certain tone, which makes a person seem superior, arrogant and/or decisive.

Low modality creates an uncertain tone, which makes the person seem inferior, considered, and/or indecisive.

When do we normally analyse modality?

  1. In relation to the narrator or speaker.
  2. In relation to a character.
  3. When people are trying to persuade you (e.g. advertisements, posters, infographics, speeches)

For literary works, we often analyse modality in the dialogue between characters, but also in the inner thoughts (fancy term: internal monologue) of characters. Apart from demonstrating inferiority, a low modality is also used to show internal conflict, when the character can't decide between different choices.

For example in Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, well, Macbeth--yes, the dude's name is the same as the play's title--is standing around wondering if he will kill King Duncan to snatch the crown. Lo and behold, Shakespeare uses low modality to construct his internal conflict:

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

Analysis Advice

  • When analysing, always add the adjective "high" or "low" in front of "modality". Never use "modality" by itself, as a 'naked' modality makes absolutely no sense... This is just like the advice for diction. Patterns are beginning to emerge!
  • Connect the use of modality to a tone. Your teacher will love this.
  • High and low modality are often used in themes related to superiority / inferiority, authority / oppression, and in the purpose of characterisation. We explain more about characterisation in a later lesson.

Imperative language

“Eat the ice cream now!”
“But I can't…”

Imperative language is simply an authoritative command. It's very closely related to high modality. In many cases you will see the combined use of high modality and imperative language in the same quote--especially when a character is being very bossy.

Analysis Advice

  • In literary works, the writer uses imperative language in a character's thoughts and dialogue to construct tone, which in turn is used to characterise that person. Characterisation is a key purpose--a core part of the Diamond Analysis Formula (previous lesson). We explain more about characterisation in a later lesson.
  • In non-literary works, look for 'Call-to-Actions'. Typically, these are buttons on websites, or highly noticeable commands in the footer on advertisements. Imperative language is almost always used here to propel viewers to take action. For example, "Book Now", "Sign Up Now", "Claim the Free Bonus", and so on.

Practice Question

Practice the concepts in this lesson with questions from Questionbank.

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