LINGUIST List 9.362

Thu Mar 12 1998

Sum: Past Ability Verbs

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Ms Debra Ziegeler, summary: past ability verbs

Message 1: summary: past ability verbs

Date: Thu, 12 Mar 1998 15:25:02 +1000
From: Ms Debra Ziegeler <>
Subject: summary: past ability verbs

About 6 weeks ago I posted a request for participants in a survey on
past ability verbs in English, and I have been asked to summarise the
findings, so here goes.

The survey focused on the following pair of sentences, which are to
appear in Keith Allan's forthcoming book ('Natural Language
Semantics'), as expressing constrasting implicatures. Similar
sentences appear in Levinson (1995) and Horn (1989).

(i) Kim was able to win the tournament.
(ii) Kim had the ability to win the tournament.

Participants were asked if the inferences derived from them were that
in (i) Kim won, and in (ii), that she didn't win. Secondly, they were
asked if the same inferences could be possible for either of the two
sentences, i.e. that she lost or won in both of them. Finally, they
were asked if in other languages similar pairs of sentences could be
found with constrasting inferences.

19 people replied to the survey, and I would like to thank the
following participants:

E. Bashir; Claire Bowern; Gillian Collins; Kim Dammers; Karen Davis;
Vincent Jenkins; Isa Kocher; Mai Kuha; Elsa Lattey; Paul Listen;
Gerald B. Mathias; Barbara Pearson; Rob Pensalfini; Sarah Rosenzweig;
And Rosta; Michael Swan; Jim Walker; Kenneth Westney; and Jim Witte
(apologies for any names I might have missed).

The responses were overwhelmingly in favour of the interpretation that
for (i) the inference was that she won (19), and for (ii) the
inference was that she didn't win, though one response considered that
in (ii) she could have won, and one speaker considered that both
inferences could apply to (ii). Two speakers thought that neither
inference could apply to (ii). 15 participants found that (ii) meant
she didn't win.

In answer to Question 2, 11 participants thought that the same
inferences could apply to both sentences (i.e. that she both won or
lost in both), but most thought that this would depend on contextual
factors. Of those who replied that contextual factors would determine
this, 5 considered that both inferences would only apply to (ii), not
(i). 4 did not specify which sentence such factors would apply to, and
2 did not attribute any importance to contextual factors.

In reply to the question about other languages, Karen davis mentioned
Slavic languages which have similar contrasts inferred in the use of
aspectual distinctions, Claire Bowern thought that similar contrasts
existed in German between koennen and haben die Abilitaet um, Isa
Kocher thought that a Turkish translation would produce sentences in
which either inference held, and Rob Pensalfini felt the same for
Italian translations of the sentences. Jim Walker thought that in
French, the same interpretations as the English ones (i.e. she won in
(i) and she lost in (ii)) would arise.

One of the most interesting responses came from E. Bashir, who
suggested that 'was able to' was more semantically dense than 'had the
ability to', and hence had a more permanent sense - 'having' or being
in possession of an ability being more of a situation which can come
to an end. There was also mention of the use of stress to
differentiate the implicatures, and past time adverbs such as
'once'. References mentioned were

Palmer, FR. 1986. Mood and Modality. Cambridge: UP.

Other useful ones include:

Horn, Laurence. 1989. A Natural History of Negation. Chicago: UP.
Levinson, Stephen C. 1995. 'Three levels of meaning'. In FR palmer
(ed.). Grammar and Meaning. Essays in Honour of Sir John Lyons.
Cambridge: UP.

Once again, thanks very much to all those who assisted.

Debra Ziegeler
Department of Linguistics
Monash University
Vic. 3168
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