Monday, November 26, 2007

More on double modals

The double modal discussion rolls on, it seems like, with a couple more posts on the Log, most recently this. And another native speaker has weighed in, Suzette Haden-Elgin, on these fine constructions in the Ozarks, here (scroll down to November 21 or search 'double modal'). Her grammar and her intuitions about it could easily be quite different from my own western North Carolina ones, but I wanted to be clear about one point. It comes from this passage in her post:
In my own idiolect, "might could be" need not mean exactly the same thing as "maybe" and "perhaps." Suppose you tell me that my neighbor has been accused of stealing from the petty cash at his workplace, and you've asked me if I think he's really guilty of that. I might would then say one of these sequences in response to your question:

1. "Maybe." [Or "Perhaps."]
2. "Might could be."

Example #1, either version, is neutral; it just means what it says -- that I'm willing to accept as a possibility that my neighbor is guilty of the alleged pecadillo. Example #2, on the other hand, is biased. It means that I'm on my neighbor's side, leaning toward a belief that he didn't do what he's accused of, and inclined also to believe that even if he is guilty he had a reason for what he did that I would consider adequate justification for the action.
As I understood Pullum's point, it was that the might in double modals might have become an adverb, basically like maybe. And for me, that works pretty well. Take this sentence:
  • You might ought reconsider that.
For it, this works pretty well; I could probably interchange them in a lot of circumstances:
  • You maybe ought reconsider that.
So, in her example above, the proposed equivalent would be maybe could be, not just naked maybe. If I said maybe could be to her hypothetical question, I'd be saying something really close to what might could be means — definitely expressing skepticism toward the neighbor's guilt, but not entirely excluding the possibility of guilt. I can't get at anything about justification for doing it from this, if the person did do it, but that's probably not central.

This stuff is so pragmatically complex and intonation and context carry so much weight that I'm far from sure exactly how to get at the possible differences between maybe + modal and might + modal. (And I'm the world's worst at syntactic intuitions, to boot.) But I also can't see an obvious parallel adverbial replacement for ought in ought could, ought might, ought would.

Let's just keep playing the modal game … .

The image is from here, and there really is a "Modal Game" — free download!

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