Grammar Writing: Modal Cat Skinning

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

Source: Just about everybody

Following on from this post, I’m going to try to get to my current dilemma. I started with a simple goal: write a chapter that goes into how to express modality. But to do that, I needed to establish what should count as modality. This is actually quite difficult, because modality is often a bit of an elsewhere category. High-level definitions often tend to be vague like “grammaticalization of the speaker’s subjective attitudes and opinions”.

What Counts as Modality?

There is a more specific list of common modal categories in The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect and Modality in the Languages of the World, by Bybee, Perkins and Pagliuca. They list the following types:

Agent-oriented modality

“Agent-oriented modality reports the existence of internal and external conditions on an agent with respect to the completion of the action expressed in the main predicate.”

Sub-types listed include:

  • Obligation to perform an action (must, should)
  • Physical necessity to perform an action (need to)
  • Ability to perform an action (can, be able to)
  • Desire to perform an action (would, want to)

Speaker-oriented modality

“Directives include commands, demands, requests, entreaties, and warnings, exhortations, and recommendations. Our term ‘speak-oriented’ is meant to include all such directives as well as utterances in which the speaker grants the addressee permission.”

Sub-types listed include:

  • Imperatives: forms used to command a second person
  • Prohibitive: a negative command
  • Optative: a wish or hope expressed by the speaker
  • Hortative: encouragement by the speaker to act
  • Admonitive: a warning by the speaker
  • Permissive: the speaker is granting permission

Epistemic modality

“Epistemic modality applies to assertions and indicates the extent to which the speaker is committed to the truth of the proposition.”

Sub-types listed include:

  • Probability that an event has/is/will take place
  • Inferred certainty that an event has/is/will take place
  • Possibility that an event has/is/will take place
  • Counterfactuality of an event (i.e. that it did not take place)

Subordinating modality

Forms used for the above modal meanings are also required, in many languages, in certain subordinate clauses, but I would exclude this from true modality in the functional sense I’m interested in.

So far, so good. Except… another item on my to-do list is rewriting my chapter on speech acts and illocutionary force, and there’s some obvious/apparent crossover here.

Let’s limit our discussion for now to three basic direct speech acts:

  • Assertions, intended to convey information
  • Questions, intended to obtain information
  • Commands, intended to cause other to behave in a certain way

The modal categories above show clear affinities to certain of these speech acts but not others. Do the following work?

??”Be able to speak French!” (agent-oriented + command)

??”Don’t swim in the water?” (speaker-oriented + question)

??”Probably go the cinema!” (epistemic + command)

If I try to do a rough typology of where the modality types above are typically used, I get the following matrix, which groups together assertions and questions vs commands.

Speaker-orientedPermissive only?
Affinities between modal categories and direct speech acts

This grouping seems natural, since both assertions and questions presuppose some kind of truth (it mostly doesn’t make sense to ask a question if you don’t believe a real answer exists), whereas commands don’t.

Is Speech Act Marking Part of Modality?

Let’s consult another source, The Oxford Handbook of Modality and Mood. In the introductory chapter, a distinction is drawn between modality (clearer scope), and mood (fuzzy scope):

Second, while the “referent” of the term modality has essentially been fairly stable in its relatively brief history, covering semantic domains such as abilities/needs, potentials/inevitabilities, deontics, and epistemics (which does not mean that the notion is beyond controversy though, see further below in this section), the term mood has come to be used to refer to a number of quite diverging linguistic phenomena. These include at least the following as the most prominent: (i) the domain of grammatical coding of modal (and related) meanings on the verb (cf. the classical notion of “tense-aspect-mood marking”, in which the term is used in this way); (ii) the domain of basic sentence types and the illocutionary categories expressed by them (this is, e..g, the way the term is generally used in systemic linguistics – cf. Halliday 1994); and (iii) the domain of indicative vs subjunctive or realis vs irrealis coding and its semantics (whereby the former pair, which involves a grammatical category on the verb, is fairly closely related to the first concept of mood mentioned, but the latter pair, though semantically closely related to the former, is much less so).

Jan Nuyts, The Oxford Handbook of Modality and Mood

The position here seems to be that marking of speech acts is potentially part of mood but not of modality, which is strange because in my experience modality is generally regarded as a superset of mood. That is, “mood” for me is generally understood to mean inflectional marking of modality on the verb, so all mood is modality but not all modality is mood. Going back to the structural vs functional discussion, modality is defined in a functional way, whereas mood combines structure and function.

Leaving aside exact terminology, there does seem to be an endorsement that marking of speech acts can be integrated into a discussion of modality, but the question is how to structure the discussion in a grammar in a way that’s both typologically sensible and meaningful.

I’ll mine the Oxford handbook and come back for more later!