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LINGUIST List 18.2549

Thu Aug 30 2007

Qs: Ability Modality in Mandarin and English

Editor for this issue: Dan Parker <danlinguistlist.org>


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        1.    Zhiguo Xie, Ability Modality in Mandarin and English


Message 1: Ability Modality in Mandarin and English
Date: 26-Aug-2007
From: Zhiguo Xie <culinguistgmail.com>
Subject: Ability Modality in Mandarin and English
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Dear linguists,

I am trying to convince myself that ability modality in Mandarin has a
temporality presupposition while English does not. Towards this end, I am
looking for help from native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of
English.

In English, is it good if, out of blue, someone utters "John was able to
finish the assignment yesterday' or "John could finish the assignment
yesterday' (focusing on the ability reading). Does the sentence convey any
contrastive meaning, like in such contexts as 'John was able to finish the
assignment, but he cannot do so today.'?

In Mandarin Chinese, are sentences (1) and (2), which both contain
past-denoting zuotian 'yesterday', acceptable in their ability reading?

(1) Zhangsan zuotian neng zuo wan zuoye
Z yesterday can do finish homework
(2) Zhangsan zuotian zuo de wan zuoye
Z yesterday do DE finish homework

Some people that I consulted reported to me that (1) and (2) would be
improved if we add elements like hai 'still' before neng (for (1)) and zuo
(for (2)), respectively. That seems to suggest that (1) and (2) are
marginal as they stand alone as above. But I really don't want to jump to
such a conclusion before consulting more native speakers.

Thank you very much.

Best,
Zhiguo

Linguistic Field(s): Semantics


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