LINGUIST List 5.241

Wed 02 Mar 1994

Disc: Double modals

Editor for this issue: <>


  • Alex Monaghan, Re: 5.232 Double modals
  • , 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 possibilities: 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. cheers, alex.

    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