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The issues


The status of modal verbs in English Approaches to the smantics of the English modals


modal verbs//modal auxiliaries//modals can, could may, might must, should, ought, need will, shall

The CORE concepts of modality:


(1) You must leave at once. (2) He may be waiting for her in front of the building. (3)You neednt have sent the invitation.


MODALS of possibility: CAN, MAY, COULD, MIGHT


+ MODALS of prediction/volition: WILL, SHALL


MOOD vs. MODALITY MOOD = a category of grammar i.e. indicative subjunctive imperative

MODALITY = a category of meaning the speakers attitude towards the situation the S refers to
(1) (2) (3)

John is clever. John must tell him the truth. John must be clever if he knows how to solve this problem.

Modal verbs

(1) (2) (3)

Simply describe a situation Mould the world, attempt to change it Evaluate the content of the sentence

Modal verbs

Means of expressing modality:

(a) (b)

Lexical: Ns, As, Advs, lexical Vs Grammatical means: mood

Modal verbs

Q1: the English modals: lexical or functional? A1: lexical verbs (Ross 1969) A2: a distinct morpho-syntactic class


Modal verbs

A1 < SUBSTANTIVE CONTENT, like lexical categories


Modal verbs
(4) The train must have been delayed. = necessity (probability) (5) They may be still waiting for us at the station. = possibility logical inference from the given circumstances

Modal verbs
modals make a common semantic contribution: they indicate the degree of force with which the situation denoted by the VP is asserted/ the way in which the speaker evaluates the situation (6) She may look nice. She can look nice when she has her hair done. She must look very nice if she is a model.


Modal verbs

Their contribution to the meaning of a sentence is different from the contribution of lexical verbs:

(7) They may be still waiting for us at the station. MAY [they be still waiting for us at the station]


Modal verbs
Lexical verbs denote EVENTS have an event structure

assign theta-roles have an external argument s-select and c-select their arguments

Modals do NOT denote EVENTS do NOT have an event structure do NOT assign theta-roles

do NOT have an external argument c-select their complement


Modal verbs: status

A2 :
the English modals have a set of morpho-syntactic properties which distinctly distinguish them from lexical verbs

the NICE properties (Huddleston)


Modal verbs

Negation can attach to the modal, without DO-support:

a. b. I cannot come. *I do not can come.



Modal verbs

Subject-Modal inversion is possible in interrogative sentences and in tags; do cannot be inserted :

Must they leave? *Do they must leave?

(10) a. b.


Modal verbs

Modals can appear in the "code:

I can dance and so can [dance] Bill. *I can dance and so does Bill.

(11) a. b.

Emphatic affirmation is possible, again without DOsupport: You shall have the money by tomorrow. *You do shall have the money by tomorrow.

(12) a. b.

Modal verbs
such properties clearly distinguish the English modals from lexical verbs and show that they behave like the auxiliaries have, be and do = AUX


Modal verbs
Modals vs. AUX incompatible with non-finite forms: (13) a. b. *They are canning to do it now. *To can or not to can, that is the question. *They have must(ed) do it for a long time.



Modal verbs

incompatible with agreement:

(14) *He mays do it.

always select a short infinitive as their complement:

(15) They must (*to) leave immediately.


Modal verbs

they have no passive form they have no imperative they cannot co-occur in standard English:

(16) *He would can help you.


Modal verbs
(17)He will can go. He might could go. = multiple modal constructions: in certain dialects

Scotland Northern England Southern United States African Vernacular American English


constraints on possible combinations differences from one variety to the other

Hawick (Scotland) (18) a. He should can go tomorrow. He ought to be able to go tomorrow. b. He would could do it if he tried. He would be able to do it if he tried.

c. Hell can get you one. He will be able to get you one.
d. Hell might could do it for you. He might be able in the future to do it for you.


Can/could is always the second of the two modals

(19) I want to can do that. I want to be able to do that.
I would like to could swim. I would like to be able to swim.

Task: If in a movie you hear someone saying: (20) They will can go tomorrow. Id like to can dance as beautifully as she does. You should could do it! will be able to guess where s/he is from?

Southern US (21)
I might can go up there next Saturday. I might be able to go up there next Saturday.

This thing here I might should turn over to Ann. Perhaps I should turn this thing over to Ann.

He may will come back down the other side of the street. Its possible that he will come back down the other side of the street.
John might should oughta be painting the barn. Perhaps John really should be painting the barn.

I may would go if you will stay with Grandma. Perhaps I would go if you stayed with Grandma.
They could might stay.

AAVE (22) a. You must didnt read it too good. You must not have read it very well. b. She still might dont even like the thing. She still might not even like the thing.

c. You might could go to the church and pray a little, but you that might dont help you. Its possible that you could to go to the church and pray a little, but you that might not help you.


Back to standard English!


Modal verbs

some modals have two tense forms:

They can play the piano. They could play the piano when they were young.

(23) a. b.


Modal verbs

some have a past tense form which can only be used in reported speech :

(24) a.She may leave immediately. b.The boss said she might leave immediately . c.*I might stay up late when I was a child.


Modal verbs

others have only one form (which can be used in past contexts as well but under certain conditions):

(25) a.They must leave immediately. b.The boss said they must leave immediately. c. * They must leave yesterday.

Modal verbs

a modal is always the first verb in a finite verbal group:

(26) a.They may have been punished for what they had done. b.We might have gone about half a mile


Modal verbs
the English modals : exceptional behaviour
(i) (ii)

Lexical category (modality) functional category (like the aux HAVE, BE)

a distinct class


So far...

The English modals : distinct morpho-syntactic class

They lack non-finite forms inherently tensed



Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

The English modals and negation

The English modals and the scope of the perfect


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

A. B.

The polysemy approach The core meaning approach / the monosemous approach


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals


= the English modals are polysemous words

e.g. MAY : 6 different meanings that correlate with 6 different contexts of occurrence


5. Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

(1) They may like the book. [ NP _ Vt + NP] = uncertainty

(2) Whatever the solution may be concessive S = concession


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

(3) This fact may be attributed in a large part to [NP _ be ]

= legitimacy


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

(4) It may be shown that [ S be + ] = ability
This type of investigation: within the traditional lexicographic approach


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

B: the MONOSEMY view= the English modals have one single core meaning = the lexical meaning of a word should be separated from its contextual occurrences



(1) This box cannot contain six books. how many interpretations?



(2) This monkey can climb to the top of the tree. how many interpretations?


(3) He must speak ten languages besides Maltese.
How many interpretations?


Semantic approaches

What conclusion can you draw with respect to the interpretation of modals?


Each modal has a CORE meaning which can be extended relative to the context in which it occurs , i.e. the core meaning can be extended contextually

modal verbs: semantically underspecified


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

The English modals do not have several meanings. They have one single core meaning e.g. CAN = possibility MUST = necessity

and they receive different contextual interpretations


Approaches to the semantics of the English modals

< the modals make a common semantic contribution:
they indicate the degree of force with which the situation denoted by the VP is asserted/ the way in which the speaker evaluates the situation POSSIBILITY vs. NECESSITY

Modal verbs
Q: How does the speaker evaluate the situation?


Against a system of organized knowledge /a system of laws (K): laws of human reason//laws of nature// social laws Analysis of the given circumstances ( under which K becomes relevant) (C )

Modal verbs
(4) John is very strong; he can lift 100 kilos. (i) K = laws of human reason (ii)K = laws of nature (iii)K = social laws (i) , (ii) or (iii)?


Modal verbs
(5) Students cannot smoke in this hall. If they do, they get fined. (i) K = laws of human reason (ii)K = laws of nature (iii)K = social laws /rules and regulations (i) , (ii) or (iii)?


Modal verbs
(6) It has wings; it must be a bird. (i) K = laws of human reason (ii)K = laws of nature (iii)K = social laws (i) , (ii) or (iii)?


Modal verbs
Q: How does the speaker evaluate the situation? (i) Against a system of organized knowledge /a system of laws (K): laws of human reason//laws of nature// social laws (ii) Analysis of the given circumstances ( under which K becomes relevant) (C )


Modal verbs
(7) This student cant be a 3rd year student.
(8) The monkey can climb to the top of the tree. (9) He must be back by midnight. (10) A: I cant leave my husband penniless. B: Of course you can the law allows you to.


Modal verbs : types of modality

= evaluation against the system of laws of human reason the modal has EPISTEMIC value

< Greek episteme [ = knowledge]


Modal verbs
Epistemic modality indicates the status of the proposition in terms of the speakers commitment to it. (Palmer 1986) Epistemic modality is the speakers assessment of probability and predictability. It is external to the content, being a part of the attitude taken up by the speaker []. (Halliday 1970)

Modal verbs
epistemic modal meanings deal with the possibility or necessity of an inference drawn from available evidence (Papafragou 2000).


Modal verbs
(11) She may be his sister. May: evaluates a general present situation as possible
(12) They may be sleeping right now. May: evaluates a present situation, going on at ST, as possible

Modal verbs
(13) They may have missed the train. = may evaluates a past situation as possible

(14)They may be leaving tomorrow. = may evaluates a future situation as possible


Modal verbs
evaluation against the system of laws of nature/ social laws the modal has DEONTIC (ROOT) value (15) A: May I use your pen? B: Yes, you may. = concerned with permission, i.e. the possibility of acts performed by morally responsible agents in accordance with social/institutional laws

Modal verbs

(16) Students must take this exam now if they dont want to pay a huge fee. = concerned with obligation, i.e. necessity of an act in accordance with social/institutional laws


Modal verbs

modality is defined in terms of social/institutional laws and concerns the sphere of duty, order, command, compulsion, permission, appropriateness.

17) You ought to help them (18) Children mustnt play with matches.


Modal verbs

According to some linguists, deontic modality also spans notions such as capacity, ability, volition:

(19) She can sing beautifully. (20) She will become an opera singer. (21) I will drown. No one shall save me!


Modal verbs

Deontic or epistemic?

(22) A: Newcastle Brown is a jolly good beer. B: Is it? A: It ought to be at that price. ( Coates 1983)


Modal verbs

The brewers of Newcastle Brown have an obligation to sell a good beer given the price = deontic modality

Newcastle Brown is expensive , therefore I infer that it is good = epistemic modality an indeterminate case (Coates 1983)

Modal verbs

to Palmer (1990) the notional categories of real-world ability and willingness belong to DYNAMIC modality:

(23) You can stay here as long as you like. = deontic (24) She can speak ten languages. =dynamic

Modal verbs
One more important distinction:
(i) (ii)

subject-oriented modality discourse-oriented modality

(25) John can play bridge. (26) John may be playing bridge now.


Modal verbs
(27) John could play bridge when he was a student. = a genuine past tense form
(28) John may be playing bridge. /John may have played bridge yesterday. = D-oriented, part of ST. (29) Mary said that John might have played bridge. might: a past tense only in reported speech

Modal verbs

Su-oriented modals alone have genuine past tense forms


Modal verbs
(30) This doctor can examine John . = the doctor is able to
(31) John can be examined by this doctor. = It is possible for John to be examined by this doctor


Modal verbs
(32) This doctor may have examined him. = It is possible that
(33) He may have been examined by this doctor. = It is possible that..


Modal verbs
The complement of subject-oriented modals cannot passivize


Modal verbs
(34) There cannot be that many students in the hall. = It is certain that there are not There = expletive subject
(35) * There can dance beautifully many students.


Modal verbs
subject-oriented modals cannot be used in sentences with expletive there


Modal verbs: conclusions so far

Modals represent a distinct morpho-syntactic class:

vs. lexical verbs Vs. auxiliary verbs


the English modals: conclusions so far

The English modals do not have several meanings. They have one single core meaning, but they receive different interpretations when set in relation with different systems of laws:

e.g. CAN = possibility MUST = necessity WILL = volition/prediction


Modal verbs

Each modal can have two values:

Deontic and epistemic Discourse- oriented vs. Subject- oriented

(i) (ii)


Modal verbs: conclusions so far


value: associated with a different set of syntactic environments (Hoffman 1966)

(36) John can sing. [ = is able to/ D] * John can be singing. * John cant have sung.


Modal verbs

DEONTIC value: [-progressive aspect] [-perfective aspect]


Modal verbs

(37) John may sleep a lot. [ E] John may be sleeping right now. John may have slept only 2 hours. [ + progressive aspect] [+perfective aspect]


Modal verbs

Is this generalization borne out by the data?


Modal verbs
(38)You must have cleaned the room by 9 oclock tomorrow. [perfectivity in the future]
(39)One must be watching the children every minute, otherwise who knows what theyll come up with. (40)We must be leaving soon.

Modal verbs
(42) Candidates must have filled in the application form. (D , + perfect aspect) (43) She could have run faster. (E/D) (44) You should have told me about it. (D)


Modal verbs
While it is true that epistemic modals can freely co-occur with perfect or progressive complements, deontic modals also accept such complements.


Negation & modality

Negation Internal vs. external negation

(1) He may not have heard about it. = It is possible that he did NOT hear about it.


Negation & modality

(2) They might not be in the office. = It is possible that they are NOT in the office.
Negation applies only to the complement, not to the modal Negation falls within the scope of the modal = INTERNAL NEGATION


Negation & modality

In the ideal or regular situation the grammatical placement of the negative indicates the scope of negation. If the modal is negated, the expected paraphrase will be It is not possible/necessary that... while if the full verb is negated, the paraphrase will be It is possible/necessary that...not.. (Palmer 1990)


Negation & modality

(3) He cant have heard about it. = negation applied to the modal itself = negation takes scope over the modal, i.e. it is external to the scope of modality = EXTERNAL NEGATION


Negation & modality

(4) He cant not have heard about it. = both internal & external negation = It is not possible that he has not....


Negation & modality

(5) a. You mustnt eat it all. b. John mustnt come tomorrow. = It is necessary that you dont eat it all. = the main verb is negated, not the modality Internal negation


Negation & modality

(6) You neednt eat it all. = It isnt necessary that you eat it all.

John neednt go. = it isnt necessary for.. John mustnt go. = it is necessary for J. not to

Negation & modality

SUoM: usually external negation (7) John cannot dance. (8) I will not tell anything about it!


Negation & modality

DoM: both (9)He mustnt eat it all. (internal) (10)You neednt eat it all. (external)


Negation & modality

Remark: Syntactic negation vs. semantic negation!!!


Last week

Internal negation vs. external negation


Negation & modality

John neednt go. = it isnt necessary for.. external negation

John mustnt go. = it is necessary for J. not to internal negation


You mustnt see that guy anymore or Ill kill you.
You mustnt put words into my mouth, Mr Williams. The present paper must not be printed.

Negation and modality

In order to negate necessity: NEED/HAVE TO/HAVE GOT TO

I neednt go now. = it is NOT necessary You neednt answer that question You dont have to answer the question. You neednt have read all these books. You didnt have to read all these books.

Modals and negation

You dont have to = it is not necessary for ( external negation)

You must not do it = (i) it is necessary for you not to do it (internal negation) (ii) I order (you) not to do it.(internal negation)

Modals and negation

Mustnt is used to express a necessary-not meaning


BUT: He must leave immediately. Oh, no, he mustnt.
= the modal can be negated in verbal crossing outs.

Modals and negation

You mustnt mind so much. Even the most famous writers started like this.



Modality and negation cont. Modality and perfectivity


Negation & modality

Epistemic modality and negation (1) a. The child may not receive a book for her birthday. b. It may not be perfect, but at least it has some qualities. c. He mightnt have made that mistake.

M (epistemic possibility) > Neg [internal negation]


Negation & modality

BUT (2) a. The child cant receive a book for her birthday. b. ????It cant be perfect, but at least it has some qualities. c. He couldnt have made that mistake. d.He cant have told him about it.


Negation & modality

Neg > M (epistemic possibility) It is not possible that...


Negation & modality : the case of MUST

Coates (1983):Note that CAN, which in its positive form is never epistemic, supplies the missing negative for MUST. (MUST NOT is used only for non-epistemic meaning). John must be crazy. John cant be crazy. ?? John mustnt be crazy.

Modals and negation

a. John must be crazy to behave like that. b. ??? John mustnt/must not be crazy to behave like that. c. John cant be crazy to behave like that. d.You must be Johns brother. e. ?? She mustnt be Johns sister. f. She cannot be Johns sister.


Negation & modality: : the case of MUST



Although mustnt and neednt occur epistemicallyit is not usual to use them simply to negate epistemic necessity. For, in effect, they are not needed, since the logical equivalence of Not possible = Necessary not and not necessary = possible not allow the possibility forms to be used instead However, both mustnt and neednt may be used where it is important to make the judgment in terms of necessity rather than possibility. Thus mustnt would be used instead of cant in e.g. He mustnt be there after all.


Negation and modality

Huddleston (1969)

He mustnt have known = the negative equivalent of He must have known.


Negation and modality

Quirk et al. (1972): accept the use of epistemic must not (rarely), but not the contracted form But: mustnt = in questions:
Mustnt there be another reason for his behaviour?


Negation and modality

Lyons (1977): It mustnt be raining , uttered with appropriate stress patterns, is equivalent to It cant be raining they both mean It is not possible that it is raining.


Negation & modality

I couldnt understand what these people were doing, playing badminton and golf. They mustnt be really sick at all, to do that.
The fact that Bennett ridiculed his view suggests that Goedickes remark must not have been clearly expressed.


Negation and modality

Epistemic MUST NOT = American English phenomenon.

Implicit denial: BrE: John cant be very happy these days. His wife just left him. AmE: John cant/ must not be very happy these days. His wife just left him.

Negation and modality

Explicit denial: BrE: A: John must be ill. B. Oh, no, he cant/couldnt be ill. AmE = BrE


Modals & the scope of the perfect

She must have told him about the party. = applies to the event in the complement = MUST evaluates an event prior to ST INTERNAL PERFECT


Modals & the scope of the perfect

She could have helped us if she had wanted to. = the anteriority reading applies to the modality = It would have been possible = the modal is within the scope of the perfect EXTERNAL PERFECT


Modals & the scope of the perfect

He neednt have told her. Task : external or internal perfect?


4. Modals & the scope of the perfect

It isnt necessarily the case that he told her. = internal perfect
(ii) He didnt have to tell her. = external perfect


Modals & the scope of the perfect

He could have told her.
(i) (ii)

It is possible that he told her. It was possible for him to tell her.


Modals & the scope of the perfect

I wish I could have persuaded her. = not epistemic could = external perfect


Modals & the scope of the perfect

Ambiguity concerning the type of modality creates ambiguity with respect to the scope of the perfect


Modals & the scope of the perfect

They might have killed the pig.


It is possible that they killed the pig. = internal perfect. Them killing the pig was a possible but unaccomplished consequence of what they did. = external perfect


Modals & the scope of the perfect

Have + deontic modality = counterfactual reading < external perfect

He could have helped us. ( = but he didnt)





She must have been such a pain in the neck to her mum and vice versa.(J.C.) B: On Tuesday I went to a dinner party when six people were experts on communist affairs and two people werent. A: (laughs) it must have been grim for the ones who werent. .(J.C.) Oh Jesus well how would the people of the other faith have received Germans from the sea you must have thought about that (J.C.)



Activity is very necessary to growing kids. I definitely had the feeling that those kids should have been belting the living daylights out of some ball somewhere in a field (instead of having a drama lesson). (J.C.) = but they werent (note fall-rise intonation nucleus on should) They shouldve left it completely alone and theyd have got perhaps back into the fold (J.C.) = but they didnt (note fall + rise-intonation pattern) This time we found the road we should have come on (J.C.) =we didnt come on the road



And we ought to have done so much this year and we havent done it, you know. (J.C.) in fact they ought to have started displaying as early as this in the year. (J.C.) = they havent started displaying Surely it ought to have been obvious to Tony that nobody in authority there was going to have a person with my sort of reputation writing articles // in their paper. (J.C.) = it wasnt obvious to Tony

You can`t have just given up painting completely not if you had that kind of talent.(J.C.) (= It is not possible that you have given up)



I could have got a job in , actually I could have gone straight there, but I just couldn`t get there. (J.C.) It could have been possible for me to go straight there but I wasn`t able to get there.

At the age of thirty eight she was utterly sick of his life nobody could have been more scathing than he was himself. (J.C.)


MAY I may have put it there out of the way.(J.C.) MIGHT And you know it could be that the surveyor has in We might have been in . fact done the survey. He might have done it (= the past counterpart of we could yesterday for all I know. (J.C.) be/might be in ) (CGEL) (Paraphrase = it is possible that he did it yesterday.)
N.S.: Do you know it? B: No, I think I might have walked out too from all accounts. (J.C.) ( I think it is possible (present) that I would have walked out too (hypothetical past))



The basic questions for the new American administration are two: need the quarrel ever have happened [...]?(J.C.) NEEDNT

Had he done his duty in that respect? need not have been indebted to her uncle. (I.S.) She need not have been uneasy. There was no sign of displeasure. (I.S.) I think my father suspects what Rady did and does not approve of it. And he need not have done it after all. (I.S.)


Modals and perfectivity

the counterfactual modals are deontic modals with a conditional feature

could, might, should, ought

They ought to have told us about it. He should have left it in this room.


Modals and perfectivity

I think now that I need not have been so prim and stand-offish, but I was afraid to wound him further by giving him what might possibly be taken for false encouragement.

Conditional modals and .... NEED

< English need is polarity sensitive deontic need is a NPI


Modals and perfectivity

a. John need*(nt) leave. b. Need we do it? c. Possibly, too, the building trade was invaded by a new class of speculator who made conditions even worse than they need have been by extracting high profits out of the unprecedented demand for cheap houses. d. The director retired soon after with a tax-free cash lump sum a lot smaller than it need have been, because all the calculations were based on an artificially small definition of final pensionable salary.

What do NPIs and COND have in common? = NPIs: excluded from positive assertion (with simple past) = non-assertive /non-factual construal


Modals and perfectivity

might? the ambiguity of the sentences with might: the counterfactual reading is plausibly associated with dynamic possibility

a. They might have killed me, mightn't they? b. They might have killed him.


Modals and perfectivity

+ the recent use of may + have -en in contexts in which
might have -en would be expected. a. Swift launch may have saved Penlee lives. (Denison 1992) b. ... relevant safety warnings were not made public. If they had been, action may have been taken and the disaster avoided. (Denison 1992)

may overlaps with might (traditionally analyzed as the tentative or as the conditional counterpart of may, Perkins 1987)

for some speakers, i.e. may is interpreted as being a conditional modal.


Task 1:

Possibility or necessity? Epistemic or deontic?

Although a shortage of skills might well push up wages for all workers, older ones may nevertheless have to accept a relative decline in salary and status. It is true that the court might have enjoyed more legitimacy if it had been set up with strong international input under the UN. But most Iraqis did not want it that way, and it is not going to happen now.


Task 1

[...] there might be other points of view than their own; that other people mightnt see the world from their perspective. Dont you sometimes think, I said to Ruth, you should have looked into it more? But you might have done it. Dont you wonder sometimes, what might have happened if youd tried?


Task 1

How could I have tried? Its just something I once dreamt about. Thats all. If you believed yourself special, you should at least have asked. You should have gone to Madame and asked. I knew how it worried you, she said. I should have told you. I should have said how it was the same for me too, just the way you described it.


Task 1

Yet the new coalition neednt be a failure, especially if negotiators get two things right. A grand coalition ought to be well placed to get the message across []. Then , Germans might snap out of their depression and come to see globalization as an opportunity .



When I think about my essay today, what I do is go over it in some detail: I may think of a completely new approach I could have taken, or about different writers and books I could have focused on. I could smell a faint odor of something medical on him which I couldnt identify.


Task 1

This isnt time to argue about ideology, he says. We must work together to restore basic freedoms. How dull you must find it,, said Little Chandler, after all the places youve seen! Very well, the next time you come we must have an evening together. Thats agreed now, isnt it?


Task 1

You neednt have rung me up. I knew about the party. He neednt have told her about the conference; she may have read about it on the internet. When William the Conqueror came to reform the local church, that transformation may have been based on political and ritual considerations.


Task 1

You must have finished everything by the time they get back. You should have bought that book when you had the chance. He shouldnt have gone to bed earlier last night. It need have been irrelevant only at the time the second edition was made...

Task 1

Anyone off to France this summer will doubtless be anticipating the benefits of a pound valued at 12 francs. They will equally be aware the franc may have been even lower had it not been for President Mitterands austerity package in the spring