26.2105, Qs: Epistemic

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LINGUIST List: Vol-26-2105. Mon Apr 20 2015. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 26.2105, Qs: Epistemic

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Date: Mon, 20 Apr 2015 16:32:38
From: Seiichi Myoga [st_myoga at i.gmobb.jp]
Subject: Epistemic

Dear linguists,

I'm interested in what distinguishes between subjective epistemic modality and
objective epistemic modality. One relevant example is (1). According to
Anderson (2011), (1) means (2).

(1) May John be leaving?
(2) Do you agree that there is a possibility of John’s leaving? (Anderson

This interpretation tells you at least two things: (a) (1) is actually a
biased Yes/No question (The speaker is just expecting a positive answer), and
(b) ''May'' in this case expresses objective epistemic modality (Let's ignore
alethic modality for the moment and suppose that epistemic modality is only
related to belief and knowledge).

I have two questions for (1). The first question is,

Which word in (1) receives the stress under the interpretation of (2)? 
I assume (1) is only acceptable if the stress falls on ''may.'' Why assume so?
This might help you:

(3) a. Is John leaving for Stockholm TOMORROW?
b. WHEN is John leaving for Stockholm?
c. IS John leaving for Stockholm tomorrow? (Hajičová 1984:118)

(3a) means more or less the same thing as (3b) (To be more exact, (3b) entails
(3a) in that you can answer (3a) if you know the answer to (3b)). As for (3c),
where the stress falls on the operator, the speaker is asking about the truth
of the proposition ''John is leaving for Stockholm tomorrow.'' Likewise, (1)
under the specified interpretation seems to be concerned with the proposition
''John is leaving,'' although (3c) is a neutral Yes/No question while (1) is a
biased Yes/No question (because ''may'' is a positive polarity item). 

The other question is,

Do you agree that (1) works in the following imaginative dialogue?
A: I think John is leaving.
B: I don't think so.
A: Why?
B: I just don't.
A: OK. Would you admit that it is possible that John is leaving, even though
you don’t think he is? MAY John be leaving?
B: I suppose so.
A: Thank you. 
(This is given by a co-moderator of Azar Grammar Exchange. He says that he has
never used the kind of questions like (1) himself, though)

I'm wondering if a previous mention of possibility helps improve the
acceptability of (1). After all, if you say, ''Is it possible that it is
raining?'', what you actually want to know is whether it IS raining or NOT. 

Thank you in advance,

Seiichi Myoga

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics

Subject Language(s): English (eng)

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