LINGUIST List 12.2606

Fri Oct 19 2001

Review: Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.

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  1. Mullen John, review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.

Message 1: review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.

Date: Fri, 19 Oct 2001 20:52:10 +0200
From: Mullen John <>
Subject: review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.

Palmer, Frank R. (2001) Mood and Modality, 2nd ed. Cambridge University
Press, hardback ISBN 0-521-80035-8, xxi+236pp, $64.95, Cambridge
Textbooks in Linguistics (1st ed. 1986; paperback ISBN 0-521-80479-5).

Dr J C Mullen, Universit� de Paris 12 Cr�teil

Modality has gained much popularity among linguists since the first
edition of this classic book in 1986. The different ways in which
different languages allow the speaker to insert themselves into their
discourse, expressing their desires or opinions ("You have to be
joking!" You could have helped me!") have become a common subject of
study. From syntax to prosody, the study of modality has spawned
innumerable academic papers.

Palmer's work is fundamentally a catalogue of ways in which modality is
expressed grammatically in languages. Examples are taken from many
dozens of languages, and categorized conceptually. Because of this, it
constitutes an Aladdin's cave of wonderful language mechanisms, but is
more likely to be useful as a reference book than as bedside reading.

One of the difficulties faced by Palmer is that linguists working on
modality have often chosen their own vocabulary for distinguishing
different types of modality. There is no internationally recognized set
of technical terms which allow us to quickly categorize uses. Moreover,
since some of the uses are conceptually rather complex, establishing an
agreed jargon is fraught with difficulty. One of Palmer's strengths is
that he brings together examples from the research of many different
writers, and he suggests a standardized vocabulary to characterize the
many varieties of modality.

The first part of the book attempts to clarify basic concepts. He
begins with the distinction between Realis and Irrealis - unmarked forms
and modalized forms - and the distinction between propositional modality
(where different types of desire/will/capacity are expressed) and event
modality (where different information about the truth of a proposition
is given).

These last two categories are broader than the traditional categories of
"modality of action" and "modality of knowledge, and the following
chapter look in great detail at the different sub-types of modality
which are marked in different languages.

As an example of different types of event modality, we could mention
that different forms are used in Central Pomo to signify

a) It rained
b) It rained (that's an established fact)
c) It rained (I saw it)
d) It rained (I heard it)
e) It rained (I was told)
f) It rained (everything is wet).

The rest of the book categorizes in great detail a very large number of
examples of propositional modality and event modality, and then looks
at how different grammatical categories (such as tense and mood) are
used to express modality in the languages of the world;

This makes it a difficult book to summarize, because there are so many
types both of propositional and event modality.

The book also analyzes in some detail the interaction between modality
and other grammatical phenomena such as "past" tenses, and negation. For
example, the negative in "You may not borrow my car." Negates the
permission - the modality, whereas the negation in "He might not have
heard you" negates the event. (It is possible that he didn't hear you).

Despite my natural perfectionist instincts, I only found one significant
mistake in the book, on page 103. Palmer write "MAY and MUST followed by
have are always epistemic, never deontic" (that is, they are always
about certainty, never about ordering people). But "You must have
finished the work by next Friday afternoon, or I'm not paying you,"
would seem to me to be a perfectly reasonable counter-example.
I didn't find this last example myself, it comes from the standard work
of Paul Larreya Le possible et le n�ecessaire -modalit�s et auxiliaires
modaux en anglais britannique. This is my little plug for this book, not
mentioned in Palmer's bibliography, but considered in France as THE
standard work on modality.

All in all, though, Palmer's book is a handy reference and a useful
attempt to draw together many researchers work into a useable catalogue
of modality.

I am a member of the Linguistics and Didactics group at Paris 12
University, though I also work on British Trade Union history.. My most
recent paper on language,
( looked at referee
design and its effect on vocabulary choice in the editorials of The
Economist. I am a lecturer in the English Department at Paris 12.
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