LINGUIST List 6.552

Thu 13 Apr 1995

Sum: Modality

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  1. (, Summary: modality

Message 1: Summary: modality

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 1995 02:02:00 Summary: modality
From: ( <>
Subject: Summary: modality

Dear Linguists,
 A friend of mine asked me to post a query on this discussion list
again about "modality and negation." I posted a query on his behalf
two months ago. To my query, only two people responded. I wish to
thank both of them (Don Churma and Steve Seegmiller) for answering this
complicated matter. Instead of writing a summary (because it would be
more helpful and convenient to understand the point of the discussion),
I will just cite my friend's original query and two people's responses
below. Please give me directly further comments if any.


) I have been thinking about 'It be (im) possible for NP to VP'
)and 'It be (im)possible that S' constructions. I asked fourteen
)native English speakers about this construction on this list
)a couple of months ago, and found that the six of them do not
)permit 'It be impossible that S' construction like (1) below:

) (1) It is _impossible_ that she knew about his success.

)This was very surprising. Among them, two people pointed out
)that (1) is not acceptable, whereas (2) is acceptable:

) (2) It is _not possible_ that she knew about his sucess.

) The fact reminded me of Halliday's (1970) paper titled
)'Functional diversity in language as seen from a consideration
)of modality and mood in English.' On the page 333 of the paper,
)he writes: "There is no such thing, therefore, as a negative
)modality; all modalities are positive."

) I think that (1)'s unacceptability for some native speakers
)is precisely because _impossible_ in (1) is a negative modality.
)On the other hand, it is precisely because _not possible_ in (2)
)is, to use Halliday's terminology, a modality negative that (2)
)is acceptable.

) Then, why do many native English speakers accept sentence (1)?
)In my view, this fact can be explained by saying that many native
)speakers do not neessarily distinguish the meaning of _impossible_
)from that of _not possible_ in everyday language use. Therefore,
)it seems to me that the use of _impossible_ in (1) is not correct
)on the level of competence (as oppsoed to performance). I would
)be grateful if you comment on my view about this problem.

 Date: Tue, 28 Feb 1995 16:41:45 -0500 (EST)

These are entirely synonymous for me (I accept both kinds of Ss); I am
baffled as to what you understand the competence/performance distinction
to mean (on my understanding, it's my competence that we're talking
about ...).

Don Churma Dept. of English Ball State University Muncie, IN 47306 USA

 Date: 1 Mar 95 13:07:00 EST
 To: "GCA01363" (

I am one of those that you describe: I accept "possible that S" but
not "impossible that S" and I think your interpretation is correct,
that some people accept the latter because it doens't seem distinct
from the first. The reason that I like that explanaion is that I had
to stop and think about it before rejecting the "impossible that" form;
the "not possible" form is clearly okay, so the "impossible" form
should be as well.

Steve Seegmiller

Thanks a lot.

Best wishes,

Hiroaki Tanaka,
Associate Professor, Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences,
Tokushima University, Japan. (home) (office)
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