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Review of  Modal Adjectives

Reviewer: James A. Berry
Book Title: Modal Adjectives
Book Author: An Van linden
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.5148

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AUTHOR: Van linden, An
TITLE: Modal Adjectives
SUBTITLE: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony and Diachrony
SERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics (TiEL) 75
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

James A. Berry, Department of Linguistics, Southern Illinois University Carbondale


Van linden’s “Modal Adjectives: English Deontic and Evaluative Constructions in Synchrony and Diachrony” focuses on a subject previously underrepresented in the literature on modality. The author makes use of corpus studies across the history of English, from early Old English to Present-day English, to demonstrate the rise and shift of various modal and evaluative constructions involving syntactic extraposition and predication. In her examination of such structures, she finds evidence for a nuanced gradience of deontic, dynamic, and evaluative adjective meanings. Van linden centers her explanation on a conceptual map that shows the interrelated nature of modal and evaluative adjectival meanings. The study is organized by an introduction and nine chapters and is divided between diachronic and synchronic topics.

The introduction presents the background of the study and introduces the major themes of and reasons for Van linden’s work. This monograph brings attention to a largely-ignored set of constructions -- namely, extraposed predicates involving deontic, dynamic, and non-modal evaluative adjectives. Adjectival deontics can be contrasted with deontic modality expressed by verbal auxiliaries (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. Van linden’s goal is to apply modality to an open category, adjectives, and therefore she concentrates only briefly on traditional studies of English modality relating to auxiliary verbs. Overall her focus is on a narrow definition of modality, as a specific subtype of typical TAM (tense-aspect-mood/modality) categories. The author considers three main subcategories -- dynamic, deontic, and epistemic -- in her review and concentrates on dynamic and deontic for the purposes of her study. She also examines two categories of adjective that she considers to be on the “modal edge”: volition and evaluation; ultimately she concentrates on evaluative adjectives because of their relation to deontics.

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

In Chapter 2, attention is turned to the adjectives themselves, and here Van linden addresses three of the goals of her study: 1) a redefinition of deontic modality, in particular to separate between deontic and non-modal evaluative meanings; 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 the backbone of the study and can be interpreted both synchronically and diachronically.

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

Factuality is examined as a means for separating modality from non-modal evaluation, 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 strong adjectives). The conceptual map that she creates then distinguishes among dynamic, deontic, and non-modal evaluative meanings (based on criteria of attitudinality between the first two and factuality between the second two). Weak adjectives are polysemous between deontic and evaluative meanings, while strong adjectives are polysemous between dynamic and deontic.

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

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

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

Transitive constructions first take on causative (dynamic) meanings before they begin to be seen with attitudinal (deontic or evaluative) meanings. Van linden distinguishes between mandative and propositional clauses in the complement 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 Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the non-finite ‘to’-clause supersedes the ‘that’-clause in mandative constructions. These distinctions are represented on Van linden’s conceptual map.

In Chapter 6, Van linden develops the idea of mandative and propositional meanings more fully. Where mandative clauses deal with deontic desirability and irrealis (the SoA has not yet occurred but is desirable), propositional clauses are frequently thought of as pre-existing SoAs that can then be evaluated (if they are not yet realized, there is an assumption that they will become true). The focus of this chapter is to show a diachronic relation between 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 the author shifts from diachronic to synchronic considerations and explains the type of data and measurements used. The approach here is based on collocations/constructions. Van linden performs a multiple distinctive collexeme analysis over 22 different constructions found in a Present-day English corpus. She also uses Internet-based data to supplement directive adjectives, 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 map that she has developed (to this point, through the use of diachronic data). Present-day English constructions are examined in order to add detail, and the context of the usage is emphasized in this part of the study. For non-modal evaluation, linguistic contexts include mental focus situations (which are rare and can -- unusually -- include some strong adjectives), ‘genuine’ evaluation (only weak adjectives), locative uses (‘good to be here’), and knowledge/acquisition of knowledge (KAK) patterns (‘good to know/learn/etc.’). There are some bridging contexts between modality and evaluation. The author then turns to distinguishing between SoA- and speaker-related types of deontic modality. Speaker-related are either formal (argument/organization) or mental focus (another connection between deontic and evaluative).

When examining strong adjectives, Van linden argues that deontic and dynamic modalities are more similar than other proposals indicate. The distinction is subjectification, which is often vague in English and must be determined through pragmatic criteria.

Chapter 9 is a conclusion that reviews the content of the previous chapters and reiterates the goals of turning attention to modal adjectives and to distinguishing semantic levels among adjective types (weak vs. strong) and among modalities (dynamic vs. deontic). Evaluative adjectives complement modal adjectives, and evaluatives provide the other boundary (opposite dynamic modality) 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-traditional approaches to modality, to predication, and to the connectedness or interface between semantics and syntax. This book is largely devoted to filling an existing gap in the literature and it thoroughly accomplishes this goal. Van linden’s definition of adjectival modality is clear and highly detailed, with carefully developed criteria. In an integrative fashion, she brings together insights from historical and synchronic data to establish both the temporal sequencing of semantic change and the gradience of synchronic meanings that result. This approach is particularly suited to the formal underpinnings of Construction 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 is the visual presentation of the data in tabular form. Similarly, the conceptual maps are visually effective, and Van linden does an excellent job of superimposing diachronic and synchronic criteria along and across the two main axes. This conceptual map, the “backbone” of the book, develops from the beginning of the book to its conclusion and provides an excellent representation 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 the syntactic literature on predication from, for example, non-functionalist perspectives (such as Den Dikken, 2006). As it stands, this book is suited to linguists who work with functional theories such as Emergent Grammar or Construction Grammar; however, there has been greater integration of formal and functional perspectives in diachronic studies in recent years. Finally, a more thorough examination of lexical categories beyond adjectives (in particular, nouns and adverbs) would continue to shine light on less-examined subjects.

Overall, however, this is a valuable addition to the field of historical semantics and to the literature on modality. It is a useful, detailed, clearly written volume. Van linden’s approach is solidly empirical, and her data lead to a focused and cohesive conceptual map of adjectival modality and evaluation. This book is highly recommended to researchers with an interest in historical 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 new perspective. Cognitive Linguistics 16(4). 677-731.

Nuyts, Jan. 2005. The modal confusion: On terminology and the concepts behind it. In Alex Klinge & Henrik Høeg Müller (eds.), Modality: Studies in form and function, 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 of Pragmatics 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 semantic change. 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 Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He received his PhD in 2011 from Arizona State University. His research interests include historical linguistics, generative syntax, and the syntax-pragmatics interface. His current research involves the rise of sentence adverbs in English and the lexicalization of predicate structures.