Double modal

Dennis R. Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Sat Dec 30 18:19:11 UTC 2006

The infrequent negation claim (see Ron Butters below) for multiple
modals in AmerEng is a good one, and so is the association with some
(surely not all) modals with adeverbials (see Larry Horn's earlier
comments on generativsm and mutliple modals). But some things don't
hang together as we combine these explanations.

I might could go.
?I might not could go.
?I might could not go.
I probably could go.
I probably couldn't go.

But with quasimodals like "ought to"
I ought to could go.
?I oughtn't to could go.
??I ought to couldn't go.

Is it just a "lexical gap" in English that we have a good adverbial
for "might" but not for "ought to"? Let's say there are, however,
good periphrastic forms where "ought to" = "be reasonable that" and
"could" = "be able to." Then "It's reasonable that I am able to go"
might could (sorry, couldn't resist) = "I ought to could go." Now how
about negation? "It's not reasonable that I am able to go" seems OK
to me and "It 's reasonable that I am not able to go" just as good.
(Well, good in the sense of not ungrammatical; they all sound
shitty.) Why do the periphrastic forms take negation so much more
happily if the semantics is relatively uniform? What's up here Larry.?


>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       RonButters at AOL.COM
>Subject:      Double modal
>In a message dated 12/29/06 8:03:42 PM, laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:
>>  At 5:37 PM -0500 12/28/06, Paul Johnston wrote:
>>  >An interesting thing about double modals:=A0 they apparently violate
>>  >certain "inviolable constraints" in GB grammar (I don't know about
>>  >even more modern Chomskyan models), since you're not supposed to be
>>  >able to (or, to can) negate on the second modal, and whether it's
>>  >Tennessee, Tyrone (N Ire) or Tranent (Scotland) that's EXACTLY what
>>  >happens.
>>  >
>>  >I might could do that for you=A0 >>=A0 I might couldn't do that for you
>>  >
>>  >A might cuid dae that for ye >>=A0 A might cuidnae dae that for ye
>>  >My ex-mother-in-law, from Southern=A0 Lanarkshire, had a million of
>>  >these so-called "performance errors", which were, of course, totally
>>  >systematic.=A0 I'm sure there are many more throughout our South as well.
>>  >
>>  >
>>  >Paul
>>  I don't understand what constraints this would violate, especially if
>>  the first (epistemic) modal can be analyzed as an adverb (=3D
>>  "Perhaps/Maybe I couldn't do that for you").*=A0 The negation on the
>>  modal would indicate that that's the highest predicate.=A0 I'm also
>>  unclear on who, exactly, would (so-)call these performance errors, if
>>  they're systematic.=A0 I'm no Chomskyan, nor do I play one on TV, but
>>  this has always been precisely the point of drawing the
>>  competence/performance distinction, as I understand it:=A0 If it's part
>>  of one's grammar, it's not a performance error.=A0 Am I missing
>>  something?
>>  LH
>>  *At least in the dialects I'm familiar with, the first modal in the
>>  sequence is indeed an external, epistemic one (=3D it MODAL be
>>  that...), and when it's "may/might" it can be paraphrased as
>>  "perhaps" or "maybe".
>And--again--since people don't seem to negate the multiple modals (at least=20
>in the US--am I wrong about this?), how is this an issue? I'm obviously miss=
>something here.
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Dennis R. Preston
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