The Critical Treatment Of Modal Auxilaries English Language Essay

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Modal verb is defined as a verb that combines with another verb to indicate mood or tense. Modal auxiliaries in English are can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, and would. Many authors studying English modal auxilaries assume that there are three types of modality expressed by these predicates: dynamic, deontic, and epistemic. Palmer (2001: 7-10) differentiates between propositional modality and event modality. Propositional modality is defined as a speaker's attitude to the condition of a proposition and thus it subsumes epistemic modality as one type of propositional modality. Event modality 'refers to events that are not actualized' (Palmer 2001: 8) and therefore both deontic and dynamic modality are branches of event modality. This article aims to focus more on two, while not ignoring other, authors who contributed enormously to this subject and their debates added to our awareness of the state of this specific area of grammar as well as grammatical categorizations. These two are Palmer and Huddleston. In particular, this paper is interested in the analysing few modal auxiliaries such as may/might and must. The argument will be that both authors have overwhelming similarities despite hot debates and points that they differ on.

Modality: Concept and Definition

To embark on a critical review, taking control of concept and definition of modality is a must to begin with. Modality is generally referred to as the way that languages show speakers' evaluation of the situation in a given utterance, i.e. the expression of their degree of belief in or commitment to a proposition. In this sense, modality is makes the speaker's/writer's involved in what they say or write. This involvement takes shape in many categories of meanings or semantic roles identified as modal categories. Several perspectives to deal with them are philosophical, semantic and linguistic. What Hoey (1997:1) reassures is a significant overlap between these aspects, despite inevitably diverse focus and depth of researchers. For instance, Palmer's (1990:1) view of modality is both semantic and grammatical in effect despite appearing potentially paradoxical. Palmer's attempt to address modality within both of the semantic and syntactic frames looks problematic. There is a perspective by Kiefer (1994:2514) which is termed philosophical since he views modality as "the relativization of the validity of sentence meanings to a set of possible worlds. Talk about possible worlds can thus be construed as talk about the ways in which people could conceive the world to be different". This discussion leads modality to be perceived as a universal linguistic phenomenon regardless of the various means in which it is realised. This concept of universality will be discussed later.

To better capture the philosophical point of view made by Kiefer towards modality, we differentiate between two aspects of this category as explained in the Encyclopedia of language and linguistics: what is actually said, i.e. the 'dictum' and how it is said, i.e. the speaker's/writer's cognitive, emotive and/or volitive attitude towards what is said, i.e. 'modus' or what is traditionally called 'mood of expression'. For example:

1- It is hot outside.

The above sentence can be matched with the following moods:

1.a. I think that it is hot outside.

1.b. I believe that it is hot outside.

1.c. I know that it is hot outside.

1.d. I hope that it is hot outside.

1.f. I doubt that it is hot outside.

1.g. It must be hot outside.

1.h. It might be hot outside.

1.i. It could be hot outside.

1.g. It needn't be hot outside.

1.k. It shouldn't be hot outside.

1.I It is probably hot outside.

1.m. Perhaps it is hot outside.

1.n. It is possible that it is hot outside.

1.0. It is certain that it is hot outside.

1.p. It is likely that it is hot outside.

The philosophical attitude towards modality correlates with one major type of modality known as 'Epistemic', which refers to logical/belief modality and " the status of the proposition in terms of the speaker's commitment to it" (Palmer, 1986:54-5). This kind of loyalty is usually taken from a source of information termed 'evidence'. This evidence is perceived by the speaker as a situational signal and is reflected in his judgment towards what he says.

However, modality is treated as a 'semantic' term from a linguistic point of view.

It is realised as "a grammatical category, similar to aspect, tense, number, gender, etc." (Palmer, 1986:1). In discussing modality from a linguistic perspective, other linguistic and semantic categories such as mood, aspect, tense, etc., are mentioned (cf. Lyons, 1977; Palmer, 1986; Huddleston, I984). This relation is applicable to modal auxiliaries including the use of may/might and must. Another implication of the discussions is that modality is a universal concept shared between all human languages irrespective of means of implementation. Modality can be assumed to be a universal linguistic category with different realisation. A clear instance is that may/might and must' have ambiguous meanings in other languages. Ending this section with the notion of universality, this paper delves deep and narrow down the discussion to one aspect of modality and a choice of modal auxiliaries which are aimed to be highlighted in this paper.

Epistemic modality of may/might and must and expressing possibility

The word epistemic is etymologically rooted in the Greek word episteme (knowledge) which means to know or to know how to do; i.e. the speaker's view or assessment of the proposition (statement) is prior to the factual statement itself. (Huddleston 2002:178)

Epistemic modality appears in most grammar references as an important feature since it is concerned with expressing the extent of certainty or loyalty to the truth of the learners' statements, or their appraisal of the possibility of something being, or having been, the case (both in Huddleston & Pullum, 2002 and Palmer, 1986, 1990). A few auxiliary verbs, also called modal auxiliaries (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would), are considered the prototypical morphological kind of epistemic modality (as in Huddleston works). Modal auxiliaries like may/might and must are important because the evidence for corpus linguistics show that they cover a lot of corpora as they are amongst the five most frequent auxiliaries (Gabrielatos and McEnry, 2005). When expressing possibility, English speakers usually phrase it as the following: It may be possible or maybe it's possible, where both terms, the verb may/adverb maybe and the adjective possible, would mean similarly in certain places. Speakers of English use such expressions either to express possibility in general, or to indicate a distinction between ontological possibility and epistemic possibility, as when they can neither confirm nor reject the possibility under current conditions, so they are epistemically possible. An outlook presented in the writings of both authors, Huddleston and Palmer, will be reviewed in the next section.

Examples and Analysis from Huddleston

Huddleston's ideas in grammar are revolutionary, based on which an introduction to grammar (Huddleston, 1984) and a textbook appeared (Huddleston and Pulum, 2002), the latter being an undergraduate textbook on modern Standard English grammar, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002). This text is intended for students in colleges or universities who have very little, if any, previous background in grammar, and do not require expertise in linguistics. Huddleston's grammar, and treatment of modals, is worthy of praise as well written, clear, to-the-point and based on recent research rather than 19th century grammar dogma. It includes an overview that maps the rest of the book, individual chapters on each of the major components of English grammar and a decent glossary. I find the technical definitions of terms, wealth of examples and clear structure, offering a big picture on grammatical issues (hierarchy, lexical categories, form and function, prototypical v. relatively infrequent structures, etc.)

Nothing is better than examples to show the kinds of meaning that modal verbs take in Huddleston's view. The three-part example below shows the distinction between epistemic and deontic modality, stated by the use of must and may. These examples are taken from Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 178; their [8]). The distinction Huddleston and Pullum distinguish make between must and may are the difference between strong epistemic or deontic modality and weak epistemic or deontic modality respectively. The Huddleston and Pullum's example of dynamic may is deleted here.

a. He must have been delayed. [epistemic]

b. You must pull your socks up [deontic]

c. You must be very tactful. [ambiguous]

The examples in (a) show epistemic modality; in these examples the speaker guesses that the subject has been delayed. The speaker's agreement to the notion that the subject has been delayed is strongly articulated in (a). In (b), the speaker either obliges the hearer to do that or gives the hearer permission. Sentence (b) therefore shows deontic modality. (c) is ambiguous between deontic and epistemic modality and can be interpreted as either 'you are obliged to be tactful' or 'I conclude that you are tactful'.

As demonstrated above, the difference between propositional modality and event modality is made clear in these cases: in He must have been delayed, the speaker is expressing a commitment to the proposition that he has been delayed; in You must pull your socks up on the other hand, the speaker is placing an obligation on his or her interlocutor to undertake an action (which is a subtype of event).

Huddleston believes that uses of the modal auxiliaries are conveyed in three epistemic, deontic and dynamic families of meanings. He attaches the importance to the first two and contrasts them in the following manner: "Epistemic modality expresses meanings relating primarily to what is necessary or possible given what we know (or believe)" knowledge versus obligation is the key point in their difference as their Greek root reveals: "Deontic modality expresses meanings relating primarily to what's required or permitted". (Huddleston, 1984, Huddleston and Pulum, 2002:54)

The authors also demonstrate this distinction in pair examples shown in table below:

a) modals interpreted epistemically

B: modals interpreted deontically

He must have overslept.

(=I may not know that he overslept, but I ' m inferring that he did.)

He must apologise.

(=the meanings have to do with obligation or permission of various kinds.)

She may be ill.

(=I don 't know that she's ill, but I also don' t know that she isn't, and am countenancing

it as a possibility.)

She may take as many as she needs.

(=More specifically, the operative notion in is obligation)

The storm should be over soon.

(= I don 't know how long the storm will last, but the probability or expectation is that it will be over soon.)

We should call the police.

(=a milder kind of obligation where it is a matter of what is the right thing to do.)

Table 1. Comparing epistemic and deontic modalities

Examples of the first column in the table above show different degrees of non-factuality which reveal limitations on the speaker's knowledge. Dynamic modality lacks subjectivity and is restricted which makes it different from epistemic and deontic modality. A difference of accounts between Huddleston and Palmer appears as Palmer (1990: 37) claims to the effect that dynamic meaning is not a modality.

Examples and Analysis from Palmer

Palmer (1990: 53) takes an intermediate approach in that evidentiality and epistemic modality are. In his view inferential evidentiality is a modal category as they consider it to be not identical with epistemic necessity. Palmer deals with instances where can has the meaning of ability in the sentence you must go now which is just used to report an obligation or it may rain tomorrow which he calls judgment. His broad definition of modality which he admits is problematic goes beyond areas that most traditional grammars count as modals. Under the banner of epistemic modality, he addresses evidentials (Salkie, 1988:240)

Returning to the discussion of epistemic modality, it is interesting to see the views of Palmer (2001: 33) who argues that the meanings of epistemic is responsible for the past tense form of modal verbs, because of subjective conclusions. Inferences are actually made by the speaker at the time of speaking. He doubts about the existence of objective epistemic modality and only recognises their existence in his discussion of have to (2001: 34). Epistemic modality in his views, can relate a proposition to contextual information. The same note is true to objective deontic modality, which also has a link to context. Palmer (2001: 75) claims: "deontic modals are often used to indicate permission and obligation emanating from the speaker, but it cannot be claimed that they are always subjective in this sense." He argues that the speaker need not be involved in the examples below:

a. You can smoke in here.

b. You must take your shoes off when you enter the temple.

The speaker of the above sentences can remain inactive because the authority for the permission or obligation does not necessarily come from the speaker. Example (a) can be a statement of permission by law, or a third person; example (b) informs us of a cultural convention which has the same effect as a law. Moreover, Palmer holds that the second example below (b) is more objective than that the first example (a).

a. You must come and see me tomorrow.

b. You have to come and see me tomorrow.

The rationale for this view is that example (a) is like a mild invitation whereas (b) can suggest that there is an important reason outside of the speaker that makes him to do that anyway.

Critical discussion

In the Introduction chapter of his monograph 'Modality and the English modals', Palmer ties the morphological expressing of modality to modal verbs (Palmer, 1990:1) while Huddleston further interprets modality semantically as: "a category of meaning… centrally concerned with the speaker's attitude towards the factuality or actualisation of the situation expressed by the rest of the clause." (Huddleston et al., 2002:172) The issue of negation in modals is also an interesting point. It simply provides modification for a modal verb, sharing its subject, object etc. The negator not and modals are in English simply grammatical modifiers to a verb. John may not drive the car (I don't know for sure if he does). Another interpretation is John do not have the permission to drive the car. The -ing complement indicates that he did it for a period of time, whereas to clause that he attempted to get involved in the activity (but something may have prevented him from doing so).

Huddleston & Pullum's systematic analysis is internally consistent. That is, if they tell you X here, they won't tell you Y somewhere else. Not only that, they don't simply tell you what, they explain why. Declarative clauses with deontic meanings of modals are often used to try and influence what happens rather than simply to make statements. Two families are connected, since in epistemic modality necessity and possibility are concerned with whether or not something is the case, and true. However, in deontic modality they relate to whether or not something happens, or is done. In table 1, for example, I consider any other possibility than I'm saying in [a] that it is necessarily the case that he overslept, and in [b] that it is necessary for him to apologise. Epistemic and deontic meanings are not generally associated with different expressions. Many examples are ambiguous, allowing either kind of interpretation for the modal, such as: You must be very tactful, which can be interpreted both as epistemic or deontic. This is because an epistemic interpretation of it means I have evidence that leads me to believe you're very tactful. There is also a deontic one that I might use to tell you there is an obligation or need for you to be very tactful (and perhaps thus to tell you to behave with tact).

The last point of debate but not the least is that auxiliaries can be viewed and analysed as main verbs or not. If they are considered as main verbs, they are termed Catantive-Auxiliary Auxiliary, as opposed to the Dependent- Auxiliary Auxiliary. In his 1984 textbook Huddleston did not assume that analysis, though his shorter version of that book in 1988 did. There is a long-lasting comparison of the two analyses provided the basis of the arguments made in the debate between Huddleston and Palmer during the 1970s (e.g. Huddleston 1974, 1976b; Palmer 1974/1987, 1979). Both authors ultimately seem to agree that although the dependent-auxiliary analysis has some explanatory advantages, they would rather espouse the catenative-auxiliary analysis.


In conclusion, linguists make different classifications of modality, although they agree on the concepts that make up modal expressions (cf. Huddleston, 1984; Palmer, 1990 and 2001). One reason for this great variation of modals is the fact that modal concepts themselves maintain a close relation among themselves with common overlaps between the modal expressions that are used to express these meanings. More complicated situations more overlap and interchange is expected because they occur in several more situations and contexts. One more reason for this variation in modal concepts classification can be the fact that each author tried to view the topic from a certain perspective. Huddleston may not necessarily give us an essentially better view than Palmer. In sum, nature of modal auxiliaries and different points of views in authors should be considered to account for the variation we see in these authors analysis of the subject.