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The Concept of Modality in Modern English

Part I



Modality in English has to do with the world, not so much the way it is as the way it might potentially be. This may revolve around people?s beliefs about it or around their potential actions in it. By modal concepts are understood concepts of what is possible, what is necessary, what is probable, what is conceivable and the like. The idea of modality is an old one, going back to classical Greek philosophy. Aristotle attaches particular importance to the notion of possibility and necessity. The emergence of such notions seems to be due to the fact that human beings frequently think and behave as if things might be other than in point of fact they are. In recent decades philosophers and logicians have attempted to analyse modal notions by construing them as statements about possible worlds(Niels Davidsen-Nielsen p.43). Possible worlds may be divided into different types(called modalities) according to the conceptual framework within which an event or proposition is considered real or true. A number of linguists are of the opinion that there are three basic modalities:

1) A modality which is concerned with rational laws or influence and deduction.

2) A modality which is concerned with social or constitutional laws.

3) A modality which is concerned with the relationship between empirical circumstances and the states of affairs which follow from them ,that is, with natural laws.

Palmer(1)(1986) defines modality as semantic information associated with the speaker?s attitude or opinion about what is said. Bybee(2) (1985) gives a broader definition: what the speaker is doing with the whole proposition.



(1) Palmer, Frank. Mood and Modality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986.

(2) Bybee, Joan& Fleischman, Suzzane. Modality in Grammar and Discourse. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 1995.

Though these definitions diverge on the particulars, they agree that modality concerns entire statements, not just events or entities, and its domain is the whole expression at a truth-functional level. Grammatically speaking, modality is associated with the sentence more than its constituents, unlike aspect, for example, which is predictably found with verbs as events.

The notional concept of modality highlights its association with entire statements. ?Modality concerns the factual status of information; it signals the relative actuality, validity or believability of the content of an expression? (1). Modality includes the ways in which language is used to encode meanings such as degrees of certainty and commitment or alternatively vagueness and lack of commitment, personal beliefs versus generally accepted or taken for granted knowledge. Such language functions to express group membership , as speakers adopt positions, express agreement and disagreement with others , make personal and social allegiances and contracts??(Stubbs, 1966:202). Modality affects the overall assertability of an expression and thus takes the entire proposition within its scope. As such, modality evokes not only objective measures of factual status, but also subjective attitudes and orientations toward the content of an expression by its utterer.

Linguistic features which express modality occur at different levels of language: individual lexical items, illocutionary forces and propositions. A major problem among most linguists has been that of accepting several dimensions , namely : 1) a semantic classification of the modal auxiliaries under such notions as necessity , permission , various degrees of possibility etc.2) the fact that even with such a classification indeterminacy arises ; 3) the relationship of the modal auxiliaries proper to other ,, quasi-modals?? such as have to, be able to, and also to other carriers of modal expressions such as adverbs (probably) and adjectives (possible) ;4) the prosodic features displayed by modal verbs ; 5) pragmatic features displayed by modal verbs; for instance ,,may I ask why you did not come yesterday??? is not a request for permission but a ,hedged performative ?? where the speaker avoids making a categorical command .



( 1 )William Frawley. Linguistic Semantics. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,1993, p. 385.

6) a realistic account of the distribution of modal auxiliaries ,,according to stylistic parameters : to express irony ,tact, condescension??(1).

Modality is the category by which speakers express attitudes towards the event contained in the proposition. The attitude may be that of assessing the probability that the proposition is true in terms of modal certainty, probability or possibility. All modal expressions are less categorical than a plain declarative. For this reason modality is said to express a relation in reality, whereas an unmodalised declarative treats the process as reality. By means of modality speakers can intervene in speech event, by laying obligations or giving permission. Closely related to these meanings are those of ability and intrinsic possibility. The modal auxiliaries in English express both types of modal meaning, which have in common the fact that they express the speaker?s attitude to a potential event.

From a semantic point of view, in making an assertion such as ,,It?s raining ??, speakers express a proposition and at the same time commit themselves to the truth of that proposition. In ordinary subjective terms, it should be said that speakers know the truth of their own assertion. For this reason, an utterance such as,, It?s raining but I don?t believe it?? is semantically unacceptable since the second part contradicts the categorical assertion expressed in the first. If on the other hand, speakers say ,,It may be raining?? ,,It can?t be raining?? ,It must be raining?? , they are not committing themselves wholeheartedly to the truth of proposition. They are not making a categorical assertion, but are rather modifying their commitment to some degree by expressing a judgement or assessment of the truth of the situation. This is an important choice which faces speakers every time they formulate a declarative clause: to make a categorical statement or to express less than total commitment by modalising.

A different kind of modification is made when the speaker intervenes directly in the speech event itself, by saying ,for example, ,,I must leave now?? ,,You?d better come too?? ,,The rest of you can stay??. Here the speaker makes use of modal expressions to impose an obligation, to prohibit, to express permission to the action in question.



(1)Leech, Jeffrey. Towards a Semantic Description of English. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1970, p.67

From these considerations, modality is to be understood as a semantic category which covers such notions as possibility, probability, necessity, volition, obligation and permission. Recently the concept of modality has been extended to cover other notions such as doubt, wish, regret and desire, and temporal notions such as usuality. The projection of any of these notions onto the content of the proposition indicates that the speaker is presenting this content not as a simple assertion of fact, but coloured rather by personal attitude or invention.

The two main types of modal meaning are called ,,epistemic?? in which the speaker comments on the content of the clause, and ,,non-epistemic?? in which the speaker intervenes in the speech event. Other terms are ,,extrinsic?? and ,,intrinsic??. ,,Epistemic?? refers to the knowledge; it is ,however ,the lack of knowledge that is characteristic of this kind of modality. Within non-epistemic modality the term ,, deontic??(1) Lynn, Berk M. English Syntax: from word to discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999, p.131 is used to refer to obligation and permission. By means of these two main kinds of modality speakers are enabled to carry out two important communicative functions:


(a)to comment on and evaluate an interpretation of reality.

(b)to intervene in and bring about changes in events.


Since the semantic field of modality has for some linguists, been widened to cover attitudinal notions, so consequently have the number and type of forms which realise these concepts. They may be divided into two main groups: the verbal and non-verbal exponents.

Verbs expressing modal meaning include the following:

(a) Lexical verbs such as allow, beg ,command, forbid, guarantee, guess, promise, suggest, warn.

(b) The lexico-modal auxiliaries composed of be or have, usually another element+ infinitive(have got to, be bound to ,etc.)

(c) Verbs which express doubt and wish.



(1)Lynn, Berk M. English Syntax: from word to discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999, p.131

(d) The modal auxiliary can, could, will, would, must, shall, should, may, might, ought and the semi-modals need and dare.

The following word categories also express modalities:

(a) Modal disjuncts (which will be thoroughly investigated later) such as probably, possibly, surely, hopefully, thankfully, obviously.

(b) Modal adjectives such as possible, probable, likely used in impersonal constructions such as ,,It?s possible he may come?? or as part of a nominal group ,as in ,,Likely winner of this afternoon?s race?? or ,, The most probable outcome of this trial??.

(c)modal nouns such as possibility, probability, chance.

(d)certain uses of if-clauses.

(e)the use of the remote past.

(f)the use of non assertive items such as ,,any?? as in ,, he?ll eat any kind of vegetable??.

(g)certain types of intonation, such as the fall-rise.

(h)The use of hesitation phenomenon in speech.

It is clear from the diversity of these categories that there is a danger that modality may become indistinguishable from tentativeness. In this case, a somewhat more limited scope must be adopted, taking modality to be basically the expression of possibilities, probabilities, certainty, obligation and permission. Even so, it is clear that modality can be expressed not simply at one point in an utterance, by a mood auxiliary, but at different points right throughout the clause. If modality is discussed in terms of Verbal Group, it is because the verb and particularly the modal and lexico-modal auxiliaries are the most basic exponents of modality in English. The other modal elements tend to reinforce the modal meaning expressed by the verb, modal auxiliary or lexico-modal.

In spite of the fact, that in conventional English grammar there are distinguished two main types of modality, it is worth mentioning Fransis Cornishe?s differentiation of several types of modality. He differentiates four types of modality: inherent modality(the level of core prediction);objective modality modality (the level of extended predication);subjective modality (the level of proposition); and illocutionary modality(that of the clause or potential utterance).

Inherent modality helps to determine the nature of the state of affairs denoted by a simple clause, and has to do with the relations between a participant and the realization of that state of affairs (Djk 1997a: 242). Examples of lexemes specifying inherent modality are the modal words used in their root? meanings (possibility, ability, or permission for can and to be able to and obligation and necessity for must and to have to).Ability and willingness may be conveyed by be able to, want, be willing to, obligation by have to, be obliged to, to be to, and permission by may, be allowed to, etc.

Objective modality is said to specify the speaker?s evaluation of the likelihood of occurrence (the, actuality?) of state of affairs, by means of comparison with what she/he already knows of a state of affair ( Djk 1997a:242) ,by means of a comparison with what she/he already knows of state of affairs in general. This knowledge may be of two types(as mentioned above): epistemic where the state of affairs in question is placed at some point on the scale, certain-probable-possible-improbable-impossible and deontic where it is characterized in terms of a system of moral ,legal, or social norms ,being located at some point on the scale,obligatory-acceptable-permissible-unaccpetable-forbidden.Djk also points out (p.205) that polarity distinctions fall within the category of objective modality: signalling the speaker?s certainty as to the actuality or non-actuality to the state of affairs at issue, they constitute the logical extremes of epistemic objective modality. Objective modality may also be expressed by a variety of modal adjectives. Subjective modality concerns the speaker?s relationship with the proposition, not the state of affairs it denotes. It signals the type and degree of personal commitment she/he wishes to express with regard to the truth of that proposition. Djk (1977a:242) mentions two types of subjective modality: ,subjective modality proper? ,where the speaker commits him/herself with regard to the content of the proposition, indicating his/her degree of certainty or emotional attitude with respect to its truth; and ,evidential modality? ,where the speaker indicates his/her evaluation of the quality of the proposition in terms of its origin, i. e. whether this is inferred on the basis of either external evidence or personal experience, or has been communicated to him/her by someone else-in which case the current speaker is unable to take responsibility for its truth .Whereas objective modality may be expressed by means of modal adjectives, subjective modality may be signalled by means of modal adverbs. Hengeveld (1988) gives a variety of test frames for distinguishing between objectively and subjectively modalized predications.

Finally, illocutionary modality has to do with the expression of the speaker?s communicative intention in uttering the predication, now a clause; namely what type of illocution she/he intends it to be endowed with as an instance of social or interpersonal action. In addition a clause?s illocution may be modified by various force-mitigating or force-reinforcing devices, or by means of adverbial phrases, the so called, ?style disjuncts?.


Part II

Date: 2016-06-12; view: 125

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