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Advice, Modals, and Coronavirus

Advice, Modals, and Coronavirus
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In recent months, health experts have released many statements on the new coronavirus that was first identified in China. These statements often include suggestions on how people can slow the spread of the virus.

Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore the grammar behind some of this advice. Specifically, we will examine public health videos from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. The CDC is the top public health protection agency in the United States.

Giving and asking for advice

Nancy Messonnier is the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC. She also is an expert on vaccines.

In one video, she offers the following advice:

“The best way to protect yourself from 2019 Novel coronavirus is to avoid being exposed to the virus.”

In this statement, Messonnier is using an important sentence pattern for giving advice. Her sentence begins with the words “the best way to...”

In an earlier Everyday Grammar program, we explained that some nouns, such as the word 'way,' are often followed by an infinitive. These infinitives act like nouns in the sentence.

When Messonnier said, “The best way to protect yourself,” she used the infinitive to protect after the word way. Note that she then used the verb BE and another infinitive.

The basic pattern is as follows: “The best way + infinitive + BE verb + infinitive”

This is a common pattern for giving and asking for advice. It is useful in many situations – not just on health-related issues. Here is an example about those of you studying English.

“What is the best way to learn English?”

“The best way to learn English is to practice every day.”

Here is another example. Imagine yourself on vacation. You ask someone for directions:

“What is the best way to get to the airport?”

“The best way to get to the airport is to take the train.”

Modals for advice

Now, here is part of another video from the Centers for Disease Control. In it, the CDC’s Tom Chiller talks about ways to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Here are some things you should do:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds...

Take extra measures to put distance between yourself and others...

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.”

Let us look at verbs that Chiller used.

Notice Chiller used the modal verb, should.

Should is a modal that, in the words of grammar expert Betty Azar, expresses advisability.

In other words, should tells another person that you are advising them to do something.

There are several modals that express advisability in English. They include should, ought to and had better.

Chiller could have replaced should with the words ought to – they are similar in meaning. But should is more common.

Had better also expresses advisability, but it has a different meaning than should and ought to. Had better suggests bad consequences if an action is not taken. In some cases, it can have a commanding, more threatening quality.

If you would like to learn more about modals, read our Everyday Grammar story called “You Had Better Learn Modals.” You can find it on our website,

Imperative statements and advice

Let’s think about some of the other words Chiller said:

“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds...

Take extra measures to put distance between yourself and others...

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.”

When offering advice, Chiller made several kinds of imperative statements. The imperative, a kind of mood, is made from the base form of the main verb. The subject of the sentence, you, is left out.

Chiller could have given the same advice using the modal should. For example, he could have said, “You should wash your hands often.”

But, if you remember the video we listened to, Chiller already said, “Here are some things you should do.”

He did not use the word should again because he already said it.

Chiller’s advice is another useful pattern for English learners. You could use it to give advice in any number of ways. For example, if someone had asked you how to improve their English, you could say:

“Here are some things you should do to improve your English:

Practice speaking every day.

Write down new words.

Test yourself on words and grammar.”

Closing thoughts

Let’s end this report with an idea for you: The best way to learn new information is to practice using it.

Try writing some suggestions by using the patterns we explored. You can write us in the website’s Comments Section.

In the future, try looking for other kinds of patterns on the internet, in books and movies. Over time, you will notice that giving advice in English is not too difficult.

And that’s Everyday Grammar.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

grammar – n. the system and structure of a language

novel – adj. new and different from what has been known before

expose – v. to show or uncover; to cause someone to be at risk

pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

practice – v. to do (something) often or repeatedly

consequence – n. a result of effect of an action

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.