LINGUIST List 5.241

Wed 02 Mar 1994

Disc: Double modals

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Alex Monaghan, Re: 5.232 Double modals
  2. , double modals

Message 1: Re: 5.232 Double modals

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 94 19:40:54 GMRe: 5.232 Double modals
From: Alex Monaghan <>
Subject: Re: 5.232 Double modals

having attempted to mail this to the originator of the query without success,
i'm posting it to the list as the subject is still receiving attention.

double modals: very common in scots english, with at least the following
i'll can go tomorrow
i'll not can go tomorrow
i might can go tonight
i might will can go tomorrow
i might will go tomorrow

for references, ask jim miller ( he may have some.
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Message 2: double modals

Date: Tue, 1 Mar 94 16:51:35 +01double modals
From: <>
Subject: double modals

The use of so-called "double modal" constructions is quite common in the
South and Southwest. I come from Dallas originally, and such
constructions as you have cited are common there in everyday speech, and
they serve a real linguistic purpose: modal forms such as 'could' and
'should' are ambiguous in Modern English, as they have both an
indicative and a subjunctive sense. For example, "I could come" can mean
either "I was able to come" (past indicative of 'can') or "I would be
able to come" (subjunctive). In German, the two forms are distinct:
"ich konnte kommen" vs. "ich koennte kommen". The use of double modal
constructions with 'may' or 'might' serves to reintroduce this
distinction. Thus, for a Southerner, "I might could come" or "I may
could come" carry the subjunctive meaning, whereas "I could come" is
only indicative in meaning. The difference between 'may could' and
'might could' is subtle; 'might could' seems to be a bit less certain
than 'may could', but many people use only 'might could' or both
expressions interchangeably. Similar arguments apply to 'may should' and
'might should'. Here, 'may' and 'might' appear to weaken the obligation
sense of 'should'. Concerning the forms which you did not hear, such as
'may can', 'should could', etc.: 'may' and 'might' are the only elements
which can occur first in a double modal, since they (esp. 'might') have
the strongest sense of expressing possibility as opposed to certainty.
Therefore, they are used to express the subjunctive senses. The second
element can only be 'could' or 'should' since these alone are ambiguous;
'may can' is unlikely, since 'can' only has an indicative sense.

I hope this makes the situation a little clearer. The use of double
modals in Southern American English fills a gap in Standard English
grammar, namely the loss of inflectional distinction in English between
indicative and subjunctive modals. Dialect or regional forms are often
more progressive in gap-filling than is a standard language. Consider
the sad case of 'you', which is ambiguous in Standard English between
singular and plural meanings. Here the regional forms have been quite
productive: "y'all" in the South (***only plural!!!!***) or similar
forms elsewhere.

Happy language researching,

Tom King
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