LINGUIST List 5.339

Tue 22 Mar 1994

Disc: Double Modals

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  1. "DavisJ-SL", Double modals
  2. mmackenz, Re: 5.253 Double modals
  3. James M Scobbie, Re: 5.287 Double modals

Message 1: Double modals

Date: 17 Mar 1994 12:01:09 -0500Double modals
From: "DavisJ-SL" <>
Subject: Double modals

As a newcomer to e-mail, I'm happy to learn off the bat that some people are
speaking my language. In two senses: people are interested in my dialect, and
people are talking about things like a form that "helps to clarify the
speaker's intent" (Tom King).
In northeast North Carolina, where I come from, the following occur commonly:
might could, might would. Less commonly: might should, might can, must
should, must can, must could. Doubtfully: must will, might will. ('May,' I
believe, is somewhat affected, not truly native.)
So there are two positions, the first of which may have 'must' or 'might,' the
second of which may have 'should,' 'can,' 'could,' 'would' (no 'shall').
It seems to me that Tom King, Larry Horn, and David Johns are all pretty much
on the mark. The first position signals the speaker's assessment of the
relative likelihood of the entire proposition (epistemic: 'It might be that
...'); 'must' signals a HIGHER probability, 'might' a LOWER probability. The
second position has to do with the speaker's view of the event itself (root),
though I don't pretend to be sure just how. It may be that those second modals
are systematically opposed in the same scalar way that 'must' and 'might' are
(e.g., degree of likelihood); or it may be that they are not all doing the same
thing. In any event, the two signals work hand in hand to "clarify the
speaker's intent" as to how certain the hearer can be that a given event
actually occurs.
It is probably no accident that some combinations are more common than others.
If the meanings have to do with assessments of probability, then those
combinations that are most effective in introducing an element of doubt will
prove to be most useful in discourse; hence, the low-level forms 'might could'
and 'might would' as opposed to the less common 'must can' and 'must will.' In
other words, if the speaker has enough confidence to assert 'can' instead of
'could,' then there is little motivation to hedge with 'must' or 'might.'
It must not be forgotten that the possibilities are different depending on the
Time involved: PAST Time allows only 'should,' 'could,' 'would'; NON-PAST has
additionally 'can' and 'will.' In first position, PAST probably rules out
'must,' at least for me. Consequently, the value relationships among the forms
are different at different positions on the Time scale; 'might could' may not
mean exactly the same thing in the PAST and NON-PAST.
I'll be interested to see Barbara Fennell's article on this. Meanwhile, I'm
intrigued by how this discussion also fits into the talk about non-mainstream
linguistics. Apparently, lots of us are interested in how speakers use
language to communicate, and that involves discussion of things like meaning
and intent.

Joseph Davis
Visiting Assistant Professor
Boston College
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Message 2: Re: 5.253 Double modals

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 1994 06:54:48 Re: 5.253 Double modals
From: mmackenz <>
Subject: Re: 5.253 Double modals

> 3)
> Date: Wed, 2 Mar 1994 11:14:39 -0600
> From: Natalie Maynor <maynorRa.MsState.Edu>
> Subject: Re: 5.241 Double modals
> The President of the United States uses double modals.
> --Natalie (

Does this mean that double modals are part of the US's version of RP?
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Message 3: Re: 5.287 Double modals

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 94 10:13 GMT
From: James M Scobbie <>
Subject: Re: 5.287 Double modals

As noted, some Scottish English dialects have double modals.
I am an anglified Standard Scottish speaker, and don't have any
"might could"s.
The only relevant thing I have to report is on the usage
"shouldn't ought". In some ways this for me is
merely the negative of "ought".
It's particularly clear for past events (2):

1 You ought to have done that.
2 You shouldn't ought to have done that.
3 You ought not to have done that.
4 *You oughtn't to have done that. (not possible in my idolect)

2 and 3 are synonymous, but I could only use 2 in informal registers.
I can't think of a difference of meaning between 2 and 5, other than a
very vague feeling that 2 is stronger in its disapproval.

5 You shouldn't have done that.

Of course, since I can't have "oughtn't", "ought" is a bit less of a modal
than it "could" etc anyway.


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