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LINGUIST List 23.5148

Mon Dec 10 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics; Semantics; Syntax: Van linden (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 10-Dec-2012
From: James Berry <jberrysiu.edu>
Subject: Modal Adjectives: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony and Diachrony
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-855.html

AUTHOR: Van linden, An
TITLE: Modal Adjectives
SUBTITLE: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony and
SERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics (TiEL) 75
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

James A. Berry, Department of Linguistics, Southern Illinois University


Van linden’s “Modal Adjectives: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions
in Synchrony and Diachrony” focuses on a subject previously underrepresented
in the literature on modality. The author makes use of corpus studies across
the history of English, from early Old English to Present-day English, to
demonstrate the rise and shift of various modal and evaluative constructions
involving syntactic extraposition and predication. In her examination of such
structures, she finds evidence for a nuanced gradience of deontic, dynamic,
and evaluative adjective meanings. Van linden centers her explanation on a
conceptual map that shows the interrelated nature of modal and evaluative
adjectival meanings. The study is organized by an introduction and nine
chapters and is divided between diachronic and synchronic topics.

The introduction presents the background of the study and introduces the major
themes of and reasons for Van linden’s work. This monograph brings attention
to a largely-ignored set of constructions -- namely, extraposed predicates
involving deontic, dynamic, and non-modal evaluative adjectives. Adjectival
deontics can be contrasted with deontic modality expressed by verbal
auxiliaries (generally split between obligation and permission). Instead,
adjectival deontics are focused on the desirability of a State of Affairs

Chapter 1 acts as a synthesis of the existing literature on modality. Van
linden’s goal is to apply modality to an open category, adjectives, and
therefore she concentrates only briefly on traditional studies of English
modality relating to auxiliary verbs. Overall her focus is on a narrow
definition of modality, as a specific subtype of typical TAM
(tense-aspect-mood/modality) categories. The author considers three main
subcategories -- dynamic, deontic, and epistemic -- in her review and
concentrates on dynamic and deontic for the purposes of her study. She also
examines two categories of adjective that she considers to be on the “modal
edge”: volition and evaluation; ultimately she concentrates on evaluative
adjectives because of their relation to deontics.

In order to define these various categories, Van linden utilizes the
fine-grained approach found in the work of Nuyts (2005; Nuyts, Byloo, and
Diepeveen, 2010) rather than a broader umbrella terminology. For modal
adjectives, a major defining characteristic is the adjective’s position in
relation to a State of Affairs (SoA). Dynamic modality is internal to the SoA,
and there are three levels ranging from participant-inherent to situational.
Deontic modality, on the other hand, is SoA-external and relates to
desirability. It is attitudinal, as is the non-modal category of evaluation.

In Chapter 2, attention is turned to the adjectives themselves, and here Van
linden addresses three of the goals of her study: 1) a redefinition of deontic
modality, in particular to separate between deontic and non-modal evaluative
meanings; 2) the definition of modality in terms of factuality status; and 3)
the creation of a conceptual map to include all expressions of modality
(adjectives, verbs, auxiliaries, and imperatives). This conceptual map is the
backbone of the study and can be interpreted both synchronically and

By using scalarity tests, Van linden separates two categories of adjectives
(that can be modal and evaluative) for the purpose of this study: weak
adjectives (e.g. ‘appropriate’, ‘important’, ‘good’, ‘suitable’) and strong
adjectives (e.g. ‘critical’, ‘crucial’, ‘essential’, ‘vital’). Although all of
these adjectives express desirability or goodness, the two types can be
separated by both semantic and formal distinctions. Dynamic modality must be
expressed by strong adjectives; non-modal evaluation, on the other hand, can
only be expressed through weak adjectives. Deontic modality is found to
operate in a semantic field between these two and can make use of both strong
and weak adjectives.

Factuality is examined as a means for separating modality from non-modal
evaluation, and Van linden refines her model by utilizing Narrog’s (2005)
criteria to distinguish between presupposed SoAs (realis/evaluative,
associated with weak adjectives) and potential SoAs
(irrealis/desiderative/modal, associated with both weak and strong
adjectives). The conceptual map that she creates then distinguishes among
dynamic, deontic, and non-modal evaluative meanings (based on criteria of
attitudinality between the first two and factuality between the second two).
Weak adjectives are polysemous between deontic and evaluative meanings, while
strong adjectives are polysemous between dynamic and deontic.

In Chapter 3, the author briefly turns her attention to an explanation of the
data and methods used in the diachronic chapters to follow. She uses
well-known corpora (York-Toronto-Helsinki, Penn-Helsinki, Collins COBUILD),
and her focus is specific to British English for the later periods to afford
consistency. Van linden acknowledges some inherent weaknesses in the Old and
Middle English corpora but finds later periods to be more balanced. The
extraposition constructions on which she focuses are split among four verbs
found in copula predication (‘it is/becomes crucial/important/etc.’) and 11
verbs used in transitive structures, involving complex transitive verbs such
as ‘consider’ and often utilizing small clauses (‘she considers it

Chapter 4 turns to establishing the diachronic aspects of Van linden’s
conceptual map, and she examines the semantic histories of four adjectival
borrowings in English: ‘essential’, ‘vital’, ‘crucial’, and ‘critical’. All
four are borrowed into English from Latin or Romance, and all four initially
have a non-modal meaning. Each of the four shifts or expands in meaning, and
the general pathway of semantic shift is from a typing or classifier adjective
(e.g. ‘essential’ means ‘of true nature’) to developing a relational meaning
(linking two concepts: ‘flour is essential to bread’). From that point, the
shift is one of potentiality or indispensability (as found in dynamic
modality) generally followed by a shift to attitudinal or moral significance
(deontic). Van linden makes reference to the work on grammaticalization and
indicates that such shifts reflect an increase in ‘subjectification’ as found
in Traugott (1989; Traugott and Dasher, 2002).

Chapter 5 focuses more fully on extraposition as a formal phenomenon and
traces the development of clausal complement patterns. Van linden uses
Jespersen’s (1933) traditional definition of extraposition to distinguish the
“sentence proper” (complement) from the matrix. The historical development of
extraposition dates from Old English, where attestation is weak and somewhat
unclear. The author examines impersonal constructions, which have either an
absent subject or one in the dative case. The rise of ‘dummy it’ in the matrix
corresponds with the shift to a grammar that is more syntactic than
morphological during the Middle English period.

Transitive constructions first take on causative (dynamic) meanings before
they begin to be seen with attitudinal (deontic or evaluative) meanings. Van
linden distinguishes between mandative and propositional clauses in the
complement position. Mandative clauses are associated with strong adjectives,
while weak adjectives can have both mandative and propositional meanings.
Formally, complement clauses are first seen as finite ‘that’-clauses
(initially subjunctive, then using modal ‘should’), but during the Middle
English and Early Modern English periods, the non-finite ‘to’-clause
supersedes the ‘that’-clause in mandative constructions. These distinctions
are represented on Van linden’s conceptual map.

In Chapter 6, Van linden develops the idea of mandative and propositional
meanings more fully. Where mandative clauses deal with deontic desirability
and irrealis (the SoA has not yet occurred but is desirable), propositional
clauses are frequently thought of as pre-existing SoAs that can then be
evaluated (if they are not yet realized, there is an assumption that they will
become true). The focus of this chapter is to show a diachronic relation
between an earlier mandative (deontic) state and a later propositional
(evaluative) state. Van linden examines formal structure, semantic dependency,
and semantic integration to trace two patterns of development: of evaluative
‘importance’ and of deontic ‘appropriateness’.

Chapter 7 is largely parallel in structure and intent to Chapter 3, as the
author shifts from diachronic to synchronic considerations and explains the
type of data and measurements used. The approach here is based on
collocations/constructions. Van linden performs a multiple distinctive
collexeme analysis over 22 different constructions found in a Present-day
English corpus. She also uses Internet-based data to supplement directive
adjectives, which she contrasts with modal-evaluative adjectives.
Collocational frequencies are analyzed in terms of ‘attraction’ and
‘repulsion’, and probabilities are established using Fisher exact tests.

Chapter 8 demonstrates, in tabular and textual form, the synchronic condition.
Van linden’s discussion here is focused on a refinement of the conceptual map
that she has developed (to this point, through the use of diachronic data).
Present-day English constructions are examined in order to add detail, and the
context of the usage is emphasized in this part of the study. For non-modal
evaluation, linguistic contexts include mental focus situations (which are
rare and can -- unusually -- include some strong adjectives), ‘genuine’
evaluation (only weak adjectives), locative uses (‘good to be here’), and
knowledge/acquisition of knowledge (KAK) patterns (‘good to know/learn/etc.’).
There are some bridging contexts between modality and evaluation. The author
then turns to distinguishing between SoA- and speaker-related types of deontic
modality. Speaker-related are either formal (argument/organization) or mental
focus (another connection between deontic and evaluative).

When examining strong adjectives, Van linden argues that deontic and dynamic
modalities are more similar than other proposals indicate. The distinction is
subjectification, which is often vague in English and must be determined
through pragmatic criteria.

Chapter 9 is a conclusion that reviews the content of the previous chapters
and reiterates the goals of turning attention to modal adjectives and to
distinguishing semantic levels among adjective types (weak vs. strong) and
among modalities (dynamic vs. deontic). Evaluative adjectives complement modal
adjectives, and evaluatives provide the other boundary (opposite dynamic
modality) within which deontic modality operates.


This monograph is a strong addition to a growing collection of literature
(from a variety of theoretical perspectives) that covers non-traditional
approaches to modality, to predication, and to the connectedness or interface
between semantics and syntax. This book is largely devoted to filling an
existing gap in the literature and it thoroughly accomplishes this goal. Van
linden’s definition of adjectival modality is clear and highly detailed, with
carefully developed criteria. In an integrative fashion, she brings together
insights from historical and synchronic data to establish both the temporal
sequencing of semantic change and the gradience of synchronic meanings that
result. This approach is particularly suited to the formal underpinnings of
Construction Grammar, as seen in similar approaches to grammaticalization
(e.g. Traugott and Trousdale, 2010).

The book is largely data-driven, and one of its organizational strengths is
the visual presentation of the data in tabular form. Similarly, the conceptual
maps are visually effective, and Van linden does an excellent job of
superimposing diachronic and synchronic criteria along and across the two main
axes. This conceptual map, the “backbone” of the book, develops from the
beginning of the book to its conclusion and provides an excellent
representation of the various binary oppositions the author has established.
Examples are plentiful and provide extensive contextualization.

Continuing work in this area might benefit from a broader examination of the
syntactic literature on predication from, for example, non-functionalist
perspectives (such as Den Dikken, 2006). As it stands, this book is suited to
linguists who work with functional theories such as Emergent Grammar or
Construction Grammar; however, there has been greater integration of formal
and functional perspectives in diachronic studies in recent years. Finally, a
more thorough examination of lexical categories beyond adjectives (in
particular, nouns and adverbs) would continue to shine light on less-examined

Overall, however, this is a valuable addition to the field of historical
semantics and to the literature on modality. It is a useful, detailed, clearly
written volume. Van linden’s approach is solidly empirical, and her data lead
to a focused and cohesive conceptual map of adjectival modality and
evaluation. This book is highly recommended to researchers with an interest in
historical linguistics as well as to those studying adjectival semantics.


Den Dikken, Marcel. 2006. Relators and linkers: The syntax of predication,
predicate inversion, and copulas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jespersen, Otto. 1933. Essentials of English grammar. London: Allen and Unwin.

Narrog, Heiko. 2005. Modality, mood, and change of modal meanings: A new
perspective. Cognitive Linguistics 16(4). 677-731.

Nuyts, Jan. 2005. The modal confusion: On terminology and the concepts behind
it. In Alex Klinge & Henrik Høeg Müller (eds.), Modality: Studies in form and
function, 5-38. London: Equinox.

Nuyts, Jan, Pieter Byloo & Janneke Diepeveen. 2010. On deontic modality,
directivity, and mood: The case study of Dutch mogen and moeten. Journal of
Pragmatics 42(1). 16-34.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 1989. On the rise of epistemic meanings in English:
An example of subjectification in semantic change. Language 65(1). 31-55.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs & Richard B. Dasher. 2002. Regularity in semantic
change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs & Graeme Trousdale. 2010. Gradience, gradualness,
and grammaticalization: How do they intersect? In Elizabeth Closs Traugott &
Graeme Trousdale (eds.), Gradience, gradualness, and grammaticalization,
19-44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


James A. Berry is a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at Southern
Illinois University Carbondale. He received his PhD in 2011 from Arizona State
University. His research interests include historical linguistics, generative
syntax, and the syntax-pragmatics interface. His current research involves the
rise of sentence adverbs in English and the lexicalization of predicate
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