There are epistemic modals and deontic modals in the modality system. Epistemic modals are thought to be learned later, yet used more in novels and academic writings (Glottis, 2003; Li, 2001; Liang, 2008) while demonic modals tend to be more subjective and imperative and, therefore, are favored in instruction brochures or expository essays. However, such a distinction is not unconditionally fixed. This study employs corpus analysis techniques to reveal the characteristics of modality in academic papers and newspaper editorials, and then compares Chinese students’ essays with these two genres in order to reveal language learners’ patterns of modality in generic terms. The findings of this study indicate: (1) Academic papers show more consultative tendencies and analytical features with the use of “can” and “may”; (2) Newspaper editorials present de facto judgments over issues, foregrounding high modality value; (3) Chinese students, when asked to write argumentative essays, tend to follow some generic features of editorials and also have a negative transfer in the use of “should” and “can”, which is not typical in either academic writing or editorials. Such preferences for deontic modality reflect a limited knowledge of genre and a lack of appropriate consideration of different voices.
Key words: academic; editorials; genre; modality