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Ways of Expressing Modality

All the words expressing the meaning of modality are classified into two general types of modality in English: epistemic and deontic (briefly mentioned above)It has long been recognized that the distinction between epistemic and deontic modality is useful when modality is analysed. However, it is difficult to give a clearcut description of epistemic modality. Here are some of the definitions offered by different linguists:

?Epistemic modality is concerned with matters of knowledge, belief, or opinion rather than fact??(1).

?Any utterance in which the speaker explicitly qualifies his commitment to the truth of the proposition expressed by the sentence he utters, whether this qualification is made explicit in the verbal component?or in the prosodic or paralinguistic component ,is an epistemical modal, or modalized utterance??(2).

?It is concerned with the speaker?s assumptions or assessments of possibilities and in most cases it indicates the speaker?s confidence(or lack of confidence) in the truth of the proposition expressed.(3)

?The term ,epistemic? should apply not simply to modal systems that basically involve notions of possibility and necessity, but to any modal system that indicates the degree of commitment by the speaker to what he says?it is to be interpreted as showing the status of the speaker?s understanding or knowledge; this clearly includes both his own judgments and the kind of warrant he has for what he says? (4)

The term ?epistemic? is related to the word epistemology (theories of knowledge).Epistemic modality encompasses all the ways in which speakers indicate their degree of commitment to the truth of a given proposition.



(1)Lyons John. Semantics. vol 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977, p.793.

(2)Lyons John. Semantics. vol 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977, p.797.

(3)Coates, Jennifer. The Semantics of the Modal Auxiliaries. London: Groom Helm. 1983, p.18.

(4)Palmer, Frank. Mood and Modality. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.1986, p.51


It allows speakers to indicate that they are certain about something, unsure about it, or deem it impossible.(Some grammarians use the term ,possibility? and ,necessity? to describe these meanings).English has a whole range of strategies for communicating this kind of information.

People often preface assertions with expressions like, I think/ believe/ assume/ guess/ suppose/ hear that Ann is taking the job??.

Here the speaker is unwilling to make the unqualified assertion ,,Ann is taking the job; instead, she/he is hedging. By prefacing the assertion with an expression like I hear that?,the speaker makes someone else the source of information; by using I assume, I guess, or I suppose, she/he indicates that this proposition is a deduction and not a known fact., I think? and ,I believe? reveal that the proposition is a personal opinion. In each of these sentences, epistemic modality is being expressed by the lexical verb. In expressions like ,,I am sure/positive/certain that Ann will take the job an ,,It is likely /possible/conceivable/doubtful that Ann will take the job?? ,the predicate adjective expresses epistemic modality.

Palmer?s finds(1986,p. 24) that there are three types of judgment that are common in languages, one that expresses uncertainty, one that indicates an inference from observable evidence, and one that indicates inference from what is generally known. These may be identified typologically as speculative, deductive and assumptive respectively. There seem to be few languages that have a system with three makers, but English is exceptional, using three modal verbs may, must and will: e .g;


Mary is at home.

Mary must be at home.

Mary ?ll be at home.


The first indicates that the speaker is uncertain whether Mary is at home .With the second, the speaker makes a firm judgement, on the basis of evidence, e. g. that the home lights are on, that she is not somewhere else. With the third, the judgement is based on what is generally known about Mary, e.g. that she always stays at home at that time.

Must seems to draw a firmer conclusion than will, so that the three might be explained in terms of:

a possible conclusion

the only possible conclusion

a reasonable conclusion


There are two not entirely compatible contrasts in the English system. The first involves the strength of the conclusion, and distinguishes between what ,may? be and what ,must? be, i.e. between what is epistemically possible and what is epistemically necessary. This distinguishes speculative ,may? and deductive ,must?. The second distinguishes between an inference from observation and an inference from experience or general knowledge, i. e. deductive ,must? and assumptive ,will?. In many languages it seems that one of these contrasts is either the only contrast in an epistemic system, or at least the more important contrast.

Like the term epistemic; deontic (non-epistemic) is a semantic label. It derives from the Greek word deontology, which refers to ,,the science of duty??. And like epistemic modality, deontic modality goes beyond the simple proposition. Deontic modality involves language and potential action; when speakers order ,promise , or place an obligation on someone, they usually exploit linguistic forms that express deontic modality. Deontic modality is sometimes called root modality because ,historically, the epistemic meanings derive from the deontic. Deontic modality has to do with ability ,permission ,volition and obligation with regard to an action. Ability and volition are variants of permission. While permission comes from outside the agent , ability and volition are internal to the agent.

Directives represent one important type of deontic modality. A directive is any utterance in which a speaker tries to get someone else to behave in a particular way. Any expression of volition also encodes deontic modality. Volition includes wanting, intention and wishing. Sentences that express promises and treats are also volitional. As a rule, in an active sentence deontic meanings attach only to animate, usually human, subjects . Epistemic modality can coexist with any kind of subject .A common way to express modality of any sort is through the use of modal and semi-modal auxiliaries.

Modal auxiliaries represent a very special class of verbs in English. These odd verbs predate even Old English; their peculiarities are the result of linguistic events in the ancient Germanic languages (ca. 500 B.C.). In contrast to the primary auxiliaries be and have ,modal auxiliaries are semantically rich and inflectionally impoverished. Modal auxiliaries carry no third person present(-s) ending and they have no past participle forms, and no infinitive forms.

Most modals do have distinct past tense forms, however. While one may find this counter-intuitive, the past tense of shall is should, and the past tense of may is might. Tense is simply a matter of form, not meaning.

Among the most common sources of epistemic modality in English are the modal auxiliaries can, could, should ,will, may, might, must and ought to. Taken as a group, these modal auxiliaries express a whole range of epistemic modality. Epistemic modals express meanings that range from slight possibility to absolute certainty:


She may come to the party.

The airport can?t be closed.


The directive is an important subcategory of deontic modality. The term directive refers to all of the strategies that speakers use to direct the behaviour of someone else. Modal auxiliaries are especially important in this regard; they can be used to order, insist , reprimand , lay an obligation, make a suggestion, and give permission. The same modal can appear in different types of directives.



She should help her sister(obligation).

Your partner should see this first(suggestion).

You might call me when the package arrives(suggestion).

You might have let me know about the problem(reprimand).


Modal auxiliaries are very ancient forms and constitute a closed class. More recently English has admitted into the language a class of ,,semi-auxiliaries?? ? constructions that behave very much like modals semantically but that do not share the same grammatical form. Semi ?auxiliaries are always lexically complex; they are composed of two or three words and usually end in to. With one exception, semi-auxiliaries take the third person(-s) in the present tense and have participle and infinitive forms. As a class, semi-auxiliaries express both epistemic and deontic modality.


Maxim is unlikely to pass.

She is certain to fall.

You were supposed to clean your room.


One more way of expressing modality is mood. Mood and modality are separate components of grammar, but they are related in origin and to some extent in meaning. The word ?modal?? is in origin connected with the mode, manner or fashion of doing something, rather than the substance. But from the 16th century onwards, it was used in logic and philosophy to refer to propositions involving the affirmation of possibility and impossibility, existence and non existence, contingency and necessity and this is the meaning that has been taken into grammar. ?Mood?? ,as used in grammar is also derived from ,mode? ,but at some stage the vowel changed by association with the completely different word ?mood?? meaning a state of mind(e.g. a good/bad mood).Mood and modality are both concerned with the distinction between objective statement and speaker-centeredness . Mood, like tense, is frequently realized by inflecting the verb or by modifying it by means of ?auxiliaries?. It is best defined in relation to an ?unmarked? classes of sentences which express simple statements of fact, unqualified with respect to the attitude of the speaker towards what he is saying (1). Simple declarative sentences of this kind are non-modal (?unmarked? for mood).If ,however, a particular language has a set of one or more grammatical devices for ,making? sentences according to the speaker?s commitment with respect to the factual status of what he is saying (his emphatic certainty, his uncertainty or doubt, etc.),it is customary to refer to the ,unmarked? sentences also as being ,in a certain mood?. Unlike Latin or classical Greek, Old English did not have an elaborate system of mood makers. It is the system of mood that is charged with giving a representation of time which serves as, a ?container? for an event.



(1)Lyons John. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1968, p.307

There is also a system charged with representing the time contained in the event. To distinguish the two, the latter is named event time and the former universe time (Hirtle 1975:15). The term ?event time? speaks for itself. ?Universe time? got its name from an analogy with the spatial universe. The definition of a mood as the result of intercepting the operation of representing universe time at some point, early or late, is markedly different from the way moods are traditionally characterized. The views presented in English grammar do have one thing in common: all analyses are concerned solely with discourse; none go beyond directly observable. Jespersen (1951:316) stresses that a theory of mood must be based on characteristic verb forms, since an approach founded on meaning ,, would make havoc of the moods of any language??. Yet in identifying the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative as the relevant moods for English, he has failed to apply his own criterion consistently, as there is no morphological or morpho-syntactic justification for recognizing the imperative as a separate mood.

Jespersen?s (1951:313) form-based identification of a ?fact mood?, a ?thought-mood? and a ?will mood? not only forces him to find parallels in other languages to account for the imperative as a mood ,but make one wonder if these distinctions really characterize what mood is asked to do. After all, mood is a formal category and qualifications such as, ?thought? and ?will? do not show us a systematic relationship based on what constitutes the verb as a form: the grammatical representation of time.

When Sweet(1982,1:105) defines the moods of a verb as ?grammatical forms expressing different relations between subject and predicate?, he is not thinking of any specific morphology characteristic to mood. Any and every form that says how the event is thought with respect to the subject seems to fall under the heading of mood, as shown in his classification:


a) inflectional moods: indicative


b) auxiliary moods: conditional



c)tense moods: preterite

d) imperative mood


Imperative mood is a very distinctive kind of directive. In Old English the imperative required special forms of the verb. The only surviving remnant of these special imperative forms in English is the verb be. In a non-imperative (i.e. indicative) sentence, the appropriate verb form for you is are. But in an imperative, the verb takes the infinitive be, the lone survivor of the Old English imperative form. Other imperative verbs look exactly like their second person indicative forms.


Be a good boy/You are always a good boy.

Eat your spinach/You always eat your spinach.


The imperative has other grammatical features that make it very distinctive. The most notable one is the absence of an overt subject-Sit down!. The imperative has no tense distinctions; the verbs always take the same form. The imperative almost never co-occurs with the perfect and only occasionally with the progressive: e. g.


Be cleaning your room when I get back.??


In conversational situations, a speaker who has social power will use more and stronger imperatives than one who does not. Teachers often use the imperative with students.

Like the term imperative, the term subjunctive refers to a particular verb form. The subjunctive is somewhat weak in Modern English, but there are speakers who use it routinely. The modern subjunctive expresses a variety of deontic meanings. The subjunctive can also be used as a directive. ??The term mandative derives from the Latin root for mandate, ?a command or order?.

The mandative subjunctive is a very distinct kind of directive and it always takes the same form??(1).



(1)Lynn, Berk M. English Syntax: from word to discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.1999, p. 145


I insist (that you be quiet),I suggest (that he leave).

I require (that term papers be turned in one time).

I demand(that she give me her files).


In each of these sentences, the main verb makes some sort of demand, from very mild to very strong. In each case, the direct object of the main verb is a clause.

Just as there are volitional modals, there are volitional subjunctive constructions. These too exploit unusual verb forms-I wish I were a bird, Mike wishes he were a cowboy. The use of were with first and third singular subjects is also a remnant of the old subjunctive system..,, I wish I was a bird?? expresses exactly the same meaning, but technically was is not a subjunctive form. The subjunctive is gradually disappearing in English and even highly educated speakers sometimes use non-subjunctive forms in such utterances.

One more way of expressing modality are ?modal words?. Some authors refer to the term ?disjunct? instead of using ?modal words?. The term ,disjunct? was first used by Randolph Quirk et .al(1978).Other grammarians (Ernst Thomas B., Mittowoch Anita and others) treated disjuncts as being sentence adverbs(adjuncts). Dsijuncts are a separate category from adjuncts. Disjuncts, as a category, are part of common-core English( Algeo p.146). Disjuncts are so labelled because they do not modify structures within the sentence.In other words, disjuncts are to some extent ?disjoined?? from the rest of the utterance. Disjuncts are commonly used to convey the speaker?s or writer?s comment on the information expressed by the rest of the sentence or on the style or form of the information itself. Disjuncts concern the external relationship between the speaker or writer and the sentence structure than adjuncts. Disjuncts are optional additions to a clause or sentence .Syntactically, they remain somewhat separate from the clause, since their message refers to the whole of the clause or sentence. For this reason they are usually found before the clause, or after it. But they can also be placed parenthetically or between commas, within a clause or sentence.

Textually, disjuncts represent a comment made by the speaker or writer on the content of the clause as a whole. The semantic import of this comment is treated under modal and relational themes. Briefly, three main types of comment may be distinguished:



(a)the subjective or objective attitude of the speaker

(b)the speaker?s opinion regarding the validity of the content

(c)the relation of the clause with something outside it.


Lynn M.Berk(1999: 209)classifies disjuncts into: attitude disjuncts, style disjuncts, point of view disjuncts and epistemic disjuncts.

Attitude disjuncts occur first in the utterance and are followed by a pause(represented by a comma in written text);occasionally they occur last in the utterance and are preceded by a pause. Sometimes attitude disjuncts follow the subject. Attitude disjuncts can be post-modified, usually by enough. Occasionally they can be negated (e.g. Not surprisingly, she caught cold).

Style disjuncts do not modify the content of the sentence in any way. Sometimes the same form can function as both an adverb of manner and a disjunct.(which will be studied more thoroughly in the second chapter) e.g.


Truthfully, he never spoke/he never spoke truthfully.

Frankly, she rarely talks to the kids/She rarely talks to the kids frankly.


In each case the adverb of manner modifies the verb that precedes it, while the disjunct has no impact whatsoever on the grammar of the sentence.

Sometimes speakers will indicate that they are speaking from a particular point of view or perspective. In a sentence like ,,Politically, the speech was a disaster,, politically indicates that from the point of view of politics, the speech was a disaster. Viewpoint disjuncts provide the context(social, geophysical, philosophical, etc.) in which the utterance is to be understood.

Epistemic disjuncts function very much like epistemic auxiliaries. They convey the speaker?s assessment of the possibility or probability that a proposition is true. Like the various types of speaker comment adverbs, they are usually, but not always, sentence initial.

In modern English term ?modal words? is mostly used. They belong to the new grammatical categories, the formation and development of which is still in the process. The class of modal words includes a large range of words, belonging to different parts of speech, the primary meaning of which has a potential ability of expressing modality. The formation of the new lexico-grammatical category of modal words is closely connected with the question of their status in the set of pats of speech. This is a matter of controversy that is treated differently in the works of many linguists. It should be noted that foreign linguistics doesn?t touch upon this question at all. On the grounds of their unchangeable form, modal words are included in the category of adverbs. But the special meaning and syntactical function expressed by modal words make foreign authors concentrate their attention on them and classify modal words into special groups and sub-groups, defining them as ,,sentence-modifying adverbs??, ,,modal adverbs??, ,,sentence adverbials?? or ,,independent adverbs?, ,,disjuncts?? and so on. The question of modal words is thoroughly investigated in Russian linguistics. The specific place of modal words among other grammatical categories was already noted in Russian grammar textbooks in the 19th century, though it did not have any exact grammatical characteristics. Modal words were not separated as an independent category and were usually included together with other word categories into a special category of ,, disjuncts ??. The further development of this subject can be found in the works of A.A. Potebnya ,D.N. Ovsyaniko-Kulikovski, A.M. Peshkovski ,A.A. Shakhmatova and others.

V.V. Vinogradov was the first academician in Russian linguistics who separated modal words as a special lexico-grammatical category of words. In some grammars modal words are singled out as a special lexico-grammatical category, but they are still not included into the system of parts of speech. At best the similarity of most of the modal words and adverbs is noted.

While taking into consideration the question of modal words as whether they are a separate part of speech or not, several important factors must not be omitted. This question may be solved on the basis of the criterion which is the unity of three features: syntactical, lexical and morphological. Such an approach gives an opportunity to solve the problem objectively, as well as to define the borders of modal words.

The problem of modal words concerning their status in the set of parts of speech may be well observed in the case of a thorough clarification of the principles on the basis of which parts of speech are distinguished. It is common knowledge that words of language are divided into grammatically relevant sets of classes. The traditional grammatical classes of words are called ,parts of speech? .All words of a given language can be classified according to some dimensions of categorization, for example, according to their individual meanings, their grammatical-morphological categories, their derivational-lexical-morphological patterns. Taking into account all these peculiarities of word classes, parts of speech are discriminated on the basis of three criteria: ?semantic?, ?formal?, and ?functional? .The semantic criterion presupposes the evaluation of the generalized meaning. This meaning is characteristic of all the subsets of words constituting a given part of speech. The formal criterion involves specific inflexional and derivational features of all the lexemic classes of a part of speech .The functional criterion provides syntactic role of words in the sentence typical of a part of speech. These three factors of categorial characterization of grammatical classes of words are referred to as ?meaning? ?form? and ?function?. According to these principles parts of speech as lexical-grammatical words have been established. Within each part of speech there can be singled out the bulk and periphery areas. Words on the periphery of the class do not share all those categorial properties of the whole class, even may be called defective, like a group of present-preterite modals in English. Modern linguists have developed another narrower principles of word class identification based on syntactic featuring of words only. The reason of this differentiation is that the three ?criteria principle faces a special difficulty in establishing the part of speech status of such lexemes as have morphological characteristics of notional words, but are distinguished from notional words by their playing the role of grammatical mediators in phrases and sentences. Here belong, for example, modal verbs together with their equivalents-suppletive fillers, auxiliary verbs, aspective verbs, intensifying adverbs, determiner pronouns.

Now we are referring back to the question concerning modal words as whether they belong to the, set of parts of speech? or not. It is worth mentioning that in the works of B. Ilyish and M.Blokh modal words are treated as a separate part of speech. Blokh mentions several characteristics of modal words: they occupy in the sentence a more pronounced or less pronounced detached position. They expresse the attitude of the speaker to the reflected situation and its parts. Here are included functional words of probability (probably, perhaps etc.),of qualitative evaluation( fortunately ,unfortunately, luckily etc. )


and also of affirmation and negation?? (1). B. Ilyish considers that modal words are separate parts of speech which differ from adverbs. He defines modal words according to the above mentioned three principles of differentiation of parts of speech: meaning, form, function. By meaning, modal words express the speaker?s evaluation of the relation between an action and reality. By form, modal words are invariable. In the case of function, modal words usually do not enter any phrases but stand outside them. In a few cases they may enter into a phrase with a noun, adjective etc. The function of modal words is a matter of controversy. Ilyish assumes that ,,modal words may perform the function of parenthesis??(B. Ilyish p. 33).He also states that modal words may also be a sentence in themselves.

Russian linguist E.S. Smushkevich again analyses modal words from the above mentioned three perspectives: lexical meaning of modal words, syntactical functions of modal words and morphological structures of modal words. Lexically modal words are divided into 2 main groups:

1)words which modal meaning is that of approval or affirmation ,such as truly, really, sure, surely, certainly ,undoubtedly ,indeed etc.

2)words the modal meaning of which is that of doubt or proposition, e. g. probably ,possibly, evidently, obviously perhaps etc.

In some cases modal words may refer not only to the whole sentence, but also to a separate part of it.

Syntactical functions of modal words are not homogeneous. They are mostly used in the function of ?parenthesis? in the sentence, but in dialogical speech they can be used as one- word sentence. The existence of grammatical homonyms-adverbs and modal words-sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish their syntactical function. In this case context gives rise to two explanations: the word may be either viewed as an adverb in the function of a modifier, or as a modal word in the function of ?parenthesis? in the sentence.

In foreign English grammars the question of morphological characteristics of modal words is not studied at all, as they are included into the category of adverbs. In this connection, morphology of modal words is that of adverbs.


Sometimes the only criterion of distinguishing the part of speech the word belongs to is its place in the sentence. Modal words can be defined as morphologically unchangeable, words expressing logical attitude of the speaker and being a disjunct or a word sentence.

Many linguists consider that the function of modal words refers to the whole sentence, while others think that it can refer to certain parts of it as well. Two forms of modality are usually defined: subjective and objective modality. According to G.A. Zolotova the content of subjective modality is the speaker's attitude towards the expression, while the objective modality is meant for expressing the attitude of the expression towards reality. Modal words are to express subjective modality and in this function they can refer both to the whole sentence and to its parts. Thus, sharing the opinion of many linguists, several modal words may function as a word-sentence, having the meaning of the following words: ,yes? ,no?.

I. R. Galperin paid much attention to the problem of modality on the text level. He thinks that modality is the core of the communicative process and this category may be expressed in any context by means of different levels: grammatical, lexical, stylistical etc.

In spite of the fact that sentence and text belong to different linguistic units, the modality of the latter ,according to M.S. Bubnova , ,,is established from modal semantics of its constituting sentence??. But this, of course, doesn?t mean that the modality of the text must be taken as a mechanical amount of modality constituting its sentence. Modality of both the sentence and the text have their own specific characteristics that demand a minute analysis.

Summing up all the above mentioned approaches of both Russian and foreign linguists, concerning the status of modal words in English grammar, we come to the conclusion that modal words may be treated as a sperate class of adverbs, i.e. words with modal meaning.

Date: 2016-06-12; view: 335

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