LINGUIST List 23.5148

Mon Dec 10 2012

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

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 10-Dec-2012
From: James Berry <>
Subject: Modal Adjectives: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony and Diachrony
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AUTHOR: Van linden, AnTITLE: Modal AdjectivesSUBTITLE: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony andDiachronySERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics (TiEL) 75PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

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


Van linden’s “Modal Adjectives: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructionsin Synchrony and Diachrony” focuses on a subject previously underrepresentedin the literature on modality. The author makes use of corpus studies acrossthe history of English, from early Old English to Present-day English, todemonstrate the rise and shift of various modal and evaluative constructionsinvolving syntactic extraposition and predication. In her examination of suchstructures, she finds evidence for a nuanced gradience of deontic, dynamic,and evaluative adjective meanings. Van linden centers her explanation on aconceptual map that shows the interrelated nature of modal and evaluativeadjectival meanings. The study is organized by an introduction and ninechapters and is divided between diachronic and synchronic topics.

The introduction presents the background of the study and introduces the majorthemes of and reasons for Van linden’s work. This monograph brings attentionto a largely-ignored set of constructions -- namely, extraposed predicatesinvolving deontic, dynamic, and non-modal evaluative adjectives. Adjectivaldeontics can be contrasted with deontic modality expressed by verbalauxiliaries (generally split between obligation and permission). Instead,adjectival deontics are focused on the desirability of a State of Affairs(SoA).

Chapter 1 acts as a synthesis of the existing literature on modality. Vanlinden’s goal is to apply modality to an open category, adjectives, andtherefore she concentrates only briefly on traditional studies of Englishmodality relating to auxiliary verbs. Overall her focus is on a narrowdefinition of modality, as a specific subtype of typical TAM(tense-aspect-mood/modality) categories. The author considers three mainsubcategories -- dynamic, deontic, and epistemic -- in her review andconcentrates on dynamic and deontic for the purposes of her study. She alsoexamines two categories of adjective that she considers to be on the “modaledge”: volition and evaluation; ultimately she concentrates on evaluativeadjectives because of their relation to deontics.

In order to define these various categories, Van linden utilizes thefine-grained approach found in the work of Nuyts (2005; Nuyts, Byloo, andDiepeveen, 2010) rather than a broader umbrella terminology. For modaladjectives, a major defining characteristic is the adjective’s position inrelation 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 todesirability. It is attitudinal, as is the non-modal category of evaluation.

In Chapter 2, attention is turned to the adjectives themselves, and here Vanlinden addresses three of the goals of her study: 1) a redefinition of deonticmodality, in particular to separate between deontic and non-modal evaluativemeanings; 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 thebackbone of the study and can be interpreted both synchronically anddiachronically.

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

Factuality is examined as a means for separating modality from non-modalevaluation, 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 strongadjectives). The conceptual map that she creates then distinguishes amongdynamic, deontic, and non-modal evaluative meanings (based on criteria ofattitudinality between the first two and factuality between the second two).Weak adjectives are polysemous between deontic and evaluative meanings, whilestrong adjectives are polysemous between dynamic and deontic.

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

Chapter 4 turns to establishing the diachronic aspects of Van linden’sconceptual map, and she examines the semantic histories of four adjectivalborrowings in English: ‘essential’, ‘vital’, ‘crucial’, and ‘critical’. Allfour are borrowed into English from Latin or Romance, and all four initiallyhave a non-modal meaning. Each of the four shifts or expands in meaning, andthe 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, theshift is one of potentiality or indispensability (as found in dynamicmodality) generally followed by a shift to attitudinal or moral significance(deontic). Van linden makes reference to the work on grammaticalization andindicates that such shifts reflect an increase in ‘subjectification’ as foundin Traugott (1989; Traugott and Dasher, 2002).

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

Transitive constructions first take on causative (dynamic) meanings beforethey begin to be seen with attitudinal (deontic or evaluative) meanings. Vanlinden distinguishes between mandative and propositional clauses in thecomplement 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 MiddleEnglish and Early Modern English periods, the non-finite ‘to’-clausesupersedes the ‘that’-clause in mandative constructions. These distinctionsare represented on Van linden’s conceptual map.

In Chapter 6, Van linden develops the idea of mandative and propositionalmeanings more fully. Where mandative clauses deal with deontic desirabilityand irrealis (the SoA has not yet occurred but is desirable), propositionalclauses are frequently thought of as pre-existing SoAs that can then beevaluated (if they are not yet realized, there is an assumption that they willbecome true). The focus of this chapter is to show a diachronic relationbetween 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 theauthor shifts from diachronic to synchronic considerations and explains thetype of data and measurements used. The approach here is based oncollocations/constructions. Van linden performs a multiple distinctivecollexeme analysis over 22 different constructions found in a Present-dayEnglish corpus. She also uses Internet-based data to supplement directiveadjectives, 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 mapthat she has developed (to this point, through the use of diachronic data).Present-day English constructions are examined in order to add detail, and thecontext of the usage is emphasized in this part of the study. For non-modalevaluation, linguistic contexts include mental focus situations (which arerare and can -- unusually -- include some strong adjectives), ‘genuine’evaluation (only weak adjectives), locative uses (‘good to be here’), andknowledge/acquisition of knowledge (KAK) patterns (‘good to know/learn/etc.’).There are some bridging contexts between modality and evaluation. The authorthen turns to distinguishing between SoA- and speaker-related types of deonticmodality. Speaker-related are either formal (argument/organization) or mentalfocus (another connection between deontic and evaluative).

When examining strong adjectives, Van linden argues that deontic and dynamicmodalities are more similar than other proposals indicate. The distinction issubjectification, which is often vague in English and must be determinedthrough pragmatic criteria.

Chapter 9 is a conclusion that reviews the content of the previous chaptersand reiterates the goals of turning attention to modal adjectives and todistinguishing semantic levels among adjective types (weak vs. strong) andamong modalities (dynamic vs. deontic). Evaluative adjectives complement modaladjectives, and evaluatives provide the other boundary (opposite dynamicmodality) 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-traditionalapproaches to modality, to predication, and to the connectedness or interfacebetween semantics and syntax. This book is largely devoted to filling anexisting gap in the literature and it thoroughly accomplishes this goal. Vanlinden’s definition of adjectival modality is clear and highly detailed, withcarefully developed criteria. In an integrative fashion, she brings togetherinsights from historical and synchronic data to establish both the temporalsequencing of semantic change and the gradience of synchronic meanings thatresult. This approach is particularly suited to the formal underpinnings ofConstruction 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 isthe visual presentation of the data in tabular form. Similarly, the conceptualmaps are visually effective, and Van linden does an excellent job ofsuperimposing diachronic and synchronic criteria along and across the two mainaxes. This conceptual map, the “backbone” of the book, develops from thebeginning of the book to its conclusion and provides an excellentrepresentation 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 thesyntactic literature on predication from, for example, non-functionalistperspectives (such as Den Dikken, 2006). As it stands, this book is suited tolinguists who work with functional theories such as Emergent Grammar orConstruction Grammar; however, there has been greater integration of formaland functional perspectives in diachronic studies in recent years. Finally, amore thorough examination of lexical categories beyond adjectives (inparticular, nouns and adverbs) would continue to shine light on less-examinedsubjects.

Overall, however, this is a valuable addition to the field of historicalsemantics and to the literature on modality. It is a useful, detailed, clearlywritten volume. Van linden’s approach is solidly empirical, and her data leadto a focused and cohesive conceptual map of adjectival modality andevaluation. This book is highly recommended to researchers with an interest inhistorical 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 newperspective. Cognitive Linguistics 16(4). 677-731.

Nuyts, Jan. 2005. The modal confusion: On terminology and the concepts behindit. In Alex Klinge & Henrik Høeg Müller (eds.), Modality: Studies in form andfunction, 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 ofPragmatics 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 semanticchange. 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 SouthernIllinois University Carbondale. He received his PhD in 2011 from Arizona StateUniversity. His research interests include historical linguistics, generativesyntax, and the syntax-pragmatics interface. His current research involves therise of sentence adverbs in English and the lexicalization of predicatestructures.

Page Updated: 10-Dec-2012