Wrongful Language: may, can, could, should, ought, must

I remember a particularly pedantic Religious Education teacher at school, who if asked, “Can I go to the toilet please” would answer, “I would imagine you are physically able to do that.” Only if you said “May I go?” would he give you premission. Correct a kid in the same way today and I suspect they would look fairly confused.

Similarly, work with a good project manager and you soon learn to be more precise in your use of must, should, could and would (or won’t), particularly if they use the MoSCoW mnemonic as a definition at the beginning of every document they write.

However it is noticable that ought is not included and is slowly leaving the English language. It seems that the duty and obligation implied by ought are no longer relevant. Instead now, you must do it or else, or you should do it to make the most of the opportunity.

The subtle signs of a move away from a polite world of rights and virtues, to one managed by legislation and personal gain.


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