Double modals as single lexical items in American English (42823)

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Double Modals as Single Lexical Items

In American English.

An important problem faced by modern studies of the American English auxiliary verbs is preventing the iteration of modals as in sentence :

1. I could must do that.

In general, there have been two main approaches for ruling out such sequences of modals: the Phrase-Structure (P-S) rule approach based on the Auxiliary analysis which relies on P-S rules containing only one modal per surface clause; and the subcategorization approach as a part of the Main Verb analysis , which assumes that modals are finite forms and are subcategorized for stem forms. One problem that both types of analyses face is that there are large numbers of English speakers in the USA, most notably in the South Midland and Southern United States, who regularly use double modals (D-M).

2.I don’t think I have any grants you might could apply for.

3.We might can go up there next Sunday.

4.I may could at Finger’s.

5.You know, if you drank a half a drink,you might oughta go ho-

me and sleep it off.

6.This thing here I might should turn over to Ann.

7.How is it no one might not would notice that but Ann?

8.Well, once we get under way, it shouldn’t oughta take us very long.

Allowing for double modals might seem to be a simple matter of relaxing the restrictions on the iteration of modals. Thus, for these dialects , the Auxiliary analysis would have an alternative P-S rule allowing two or more modals, and the Main Verb analysis would allow modals to have stem forms.However, such simple solutions are not adequate when assessed against data collected in Texas from DM speakers.

This data as a whole indicates that merely relaxing the restrictions of either the P-S analysis or the subcategorization analysis will not adequately account for the speakers’ intuitions about or production of DM’s.In fact, weakening the restrictions of either of these two analyses would do little more than generate unrestricted sequences of modals. Such a consequence is problematic since the Texas data indicates that DM dialects have significant syntactic and semantic restrictions.

While being regional, double modals are quite important phenome-non. A large percentage of the U.S. population uses them. Almost every native speaker of the Southern Midland and Southern dialect areas uses at least one DM at least occasionally.

Also, there are two facts suggesting that the underlying structures of single and double modal dialects are very similar.First, from the viewpoint of structural dialectology, DM’s are intelligible to speakers of single modal dialects, so the structure of DM dialects must be compatible with those of single modal dialects. Second, some Northerners who migrate to Texas begin to use DM’s within a year of their arrival, showing that Northern English can easily accommodate DM’s.


Both the unconstrained phrase-structure and subcategorization analyses predict that all combinations of DM’s are acceptable. There are the nine modals, can, could, may, might, should, will, would, ought to, must, and the quasi-modals, better (as in had better, ‘d better), need, supposed to, used to, attested in DM’s, and according to analysis, there are 156 possible combinations with them.

Here are the most common:

may could might would might supposed to

may can might better might’ve used to

may will might had better may need to

may should can might better can

may supposed to used to could might woulda

should oughta musta coulda had oughta

might could would better

might oughta could might

might can oughta could

might should may used to

In general, the DM combinations are strictly ordered.

e.g: may can, but not can may.

The exceptions to this are could might , can might. Typically,the first modal is may or might .

There is generally one sense (or sometimes two related senses) that is (are) preferred for each DM while other senses are generally rejected or treated indifferently. In the case of might could - “ability”. The “possibility” is ranked low, and the “permission” sense is somewhere in between.

Thus, Double Modals could be semantically described as follows:

Might could

ability”: Noone could tell if he was dealing with them or not, but Bill

might could tell the case of his arrival.

permission’: She is a very polite three-year-old.Yesterday she asked

If she might could write on the walls.

possibility”: There might could be water in that old well.

Might should

obligation”: They are just realized that they forgot to send an invitation

to John. “We might should’ve invited John."

obligation/suggestion”: You might should turn this to Ann.

logical possibility”: Jim usually gets home at about 5:30, but it is 6:00

And he is not at home yet.He might should be

home by now.

Might oughta

obligation”: We might oughta invite him to our party.

obligation/suggestion”: You might not oughta call him.

logical possibility”: It is four o’clock and Mary just put a pie in the

oven. The pie might oughta be done by five.

Might would

hypothetical”: I might would havedone it if he would tell me to.

prediction”: I asked him if he might would have it ready by one


habitual”: John is recalling his childhood:”On Sundays we might

would visit our grandparents.


Due the individuals’ will the second part of a double modal may vary ,therefore, the whole modal construction changes its meaning. That is because some senses are preferred over others in a second modal. Furthermore the data indicate that there is no simple generalization that can be made concerning which senses are the most acceptable. For instance, although the root senses are preferred over the epistemic one for might could and might oughta (the “obligation” and “obligation/suggestion”from the one part and the “logical possibility” from the other) this generalization does not hold for might could or might would.

In the case of might could , “ability” , a root sense, is more acceptable than “permission”,another root sense, and “possibility”, an epistemic sense. Finally, for might would “hypothetical”, the most epistemic sense , is somewhat preferred over “prediction” and definitely preferred over “habitual” , the most root-like sense. Because of this situation , se-mantis relations must be stated separately for each Double Modal.

The DM’s syntactic and semantic properties analysis shows that Double Modals have restrictions in their syntax and meanings that the corresponding single modals may not have. Furthermore , the restrictions are idiosyncratic: a rule that applies to one DM may not be applicable to another one. Thus , a syntactic solution of the DM problem is unlikely because DMs don’t behave as simple combinations of their component parts as would be expected if they were syntactically combined.


The tense specification for single modals in present-day English is somewhat unclear. On the one hand , there are some contexts where only the past-tense forms of some of the models are acceptable for most speakers of American English , as in the following dialogue:

  • Why did he lose the all-around athlete contest last month?

  • Well , he was excellent in everything else , but he can’t/couldn’t swim across the river that day.

Although some speakers will also find this difference for might as opposed to may , or , will accept may in this context :

I am not sure what the problem was. But he may/might have had too much to eat before the race. The behaviour of may and might is not unusual for the present-day modals , which (except for can and will ) can usually be used in past tense contexts , or in present , future , or timeless action ones :

She might have eaten that last piece of cake.

You would have been just as angry.

George could have been more polite around his mother.

That woman may have been his mother-in-law.

It could be ready by 6 o’clock.

You should visit Rome in the spring.

In spite of the fact that some past contexts freely allow both past and present forms of the modals , there are other contexts which are more acceptable with past than with present :

I talked to Jim just before he left for Dallas last week.

A : He thought that he could get there in time.

B : He thought that he can get there in time.

As to Double Modals , their problem is more difficult. They could be conventionally subdivided the two groups : Tense-mixed and Tense-matched ones . The first group comprises DMs whose first and second parts are specified differently for tense :

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