Modal verbs such as "shall", "should", "must", "may" and "ought" are in terminal decline, according to academics who have charted changes in grammar since 1961. They are being replaced by Americanisms such as the written equivalent of "gotta" and "gonna".
For the generation taughtnever to confuse "can" ("I can swim") with "may" ("may I go?"), the news is shocking. The permissive use of "may" has virtually disappeared and anyone who thinks "shall" should never be confused with "will" is living in the past.
Professor Geoffrey Leech of Lancaster University's linguistics department is philosophical about the changes. "There is no point in being other than fatalistic. It is like people wearing baseball caps and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken," he said.
He is carrying out a three-year study of how grammar in written English has changed. The work is based on a million words collected by Professor Leech in 1961 in extracts from newspapers, magazines, academic journals and books. This has been compared with a matching collection set up in 1991.
Professor Leech said: "Two strong tendencies can be summed up as Americanisation and colloquialisation. The modal verbs are one example of American influence - the evidence suggests that the British in the Nineties are roughly catching up with where the Americans were in the Sixties. Colloquialisation is a trend towards more informal grammar, where writing imitates speech habits."
One lesson for schools, he suggests, is that they should not waste time teaching children outdated grammatical forms.Textbooks were often out of date and devoted too much space to the use of words which were increasingly rare, he added.