Modal Verb - Function


A modal auxiliary verb gives more information about the function of the main verb that it governs. Modals have a wide variety of communicative functions, but these functions can generally be related to a scale ranging from possibility ("may") to necessity ("must"), in terms of one of the following types of modality:

  • epistemic modality, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood and certainty)
  • deontic modality, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including permission and duty)
  • dynamic modality, which may be distinguished from deontic modality, in that with dynamic modality, the conditioning factors are internal – the subject's own ability or willingness to act

The following sentences illustrate epistemic and deontic uses of the English modal verb must:

  • epistemic: You must be starving. ("It is necessarily the case that you are starving.")
  • deontic: You must leave now. ("You are required to leave now.")

An ambiguous case is You must speak Spanish. This may be intended epistemically ("It is surely the case that you speak Spanish", e.g. after having lived in Spain for a long time), or deontically ("It is a requirement that you speak Spanish", e.g. if you want to get a job in Spain).

Epistemic modals can be analyzed as raising verbs, while deontic modals can be analyzed as control verbs.

Epistemic usages of modals tend to develop from deontic usages. For example, the inferred certainty sense of English must developed after the strong obligation sense; the probabilistic sense of should developed after the weak obligation sense; and the possibility senses of may and can developed later than the permission or ability sense. Two typical sequences of evolution of modal meanings are:

  • internal mental ability → internal ability → root possibility (internal or external ability) → permission and epistemic possibility
  • obligation → probability

Read more about this topic:  Modal Verb

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Famous quotes containing the word function:

    The intension of a proposition comprises whatever the proposition entails: and it includes nothing else.... The connotation or intension of a function comprises all that attribution of this predicate to anything entails as also predicable to that thing.
    Clarence Lewis (1883–1964)

    The information links are like nerves that pervade and help to animate the human organism. The sensors and monitors are analogous to the human senses that put us in touch with the world. Data bases correspond to memory; the information processors perform the function of human reasoning and comprehension. Once the postmodern infrastructure is reasonably integrated, it will greatly exceed human intelligence in reach, acuity, capacity, and precision.
    Albert Borgman, U.S. educator, author. Crossing the Postmodern Divide, ch. 4, University of Chicago Press (1992)

    We are thus able to distinguish thinking as the function which is to a large extent linguistic.
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