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  1. #1
    M56 Guest

    Default Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    In his chapter on modal auxiliaries in The English Verb, Michael Lewis lists what he thinks are the basic semantic meanings for each. I cite those meanings below and ask if you agree with them.

    Please remember, we are talking about the basic semantic meaning. In context, these auxiliaries take on wider meanings, but it is the basic meaning I want to discuss.


    Paraphrased.

    Can = I assert that it is possible that ...
    Could = I assert that it is "remotely" possible that ...

    May = If I have anything to do with it, it is possible that ...
    Might = If I have anything to do with it, it is "remotely" possible that ...

    Must = I assert that it is necessary that ...

    Will = Given my percepton of the immediate situation, it is inevitable that ...

    Would = Given the (hypothetical) situation which I perceive at the moment of speaking, the action described is also inevitably true.

    Shall = According to my perception of the present situation, it is, if it's anything to do with me, inevitable that ...

    From The English Verb by M Lewis. LTP 1986.

    Should is dealt with separately as it is a far more complex auxiliary and has many meanings.
    Last edited by M56; 07-Jun-2005 at 06:04.

  2. #2
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    I'm certainly not greatly taken with his definition of 'shall', as nowadays, I would say it primary use is in question forms, where it doesn't have that meaning. I think he's describing an older meaning.

  3. #3
    M56 Guest

    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    Quote Originally Posted by tdol
    I'm certainly not greatly taken with his definition of 'shall', as nowadays, I would say it primary use is in question forms, where it doesn't have that meaning. I think he's describing an older meaning.
    Not really, in Lewis' opinion. He says that the question form just includes another person in its paraphrasing.

    Shall = According to your perception of the present situation, is it, if it's anything to do with you, inevitable that ...?
    Last edited by M56; 07-Jun-2005 at 06:29.

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    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    What do you think of his idea? I'm still not sure about the 'inevitable' idea and the forms 'shall I?' and 'shall we?'.

  5. #5
    M56 Guest

    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    Quote Originally Posted by tdol
    What do you think of his idea? I'm still not sure about the 'inevitable' idea and the forms 'shall I?' and 'shall we?'.
    For me, there is a strong feeling of inevitability involved in the modal use of "will" and "shall".

    In its original use "shall" is similar to "will", but the former has the extra meaning of "if it is anything to do with me". Now, a lot of folks, mostly AE, see no difference between the two in deontic use.

    For me, the idea of "if it's anything to do with you" fits well with "shall I" and "shall we" questions.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    We'll have to differ on that one.

    With Lewis' idea of 'remoteness' in 'could', I think he has a case even where both forms are used, 'can/could you pass me that?', where the remoteness can be social. (cross-forum posting, here)

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    M56:
    In his chapter on modal auxiliaries in The English Verb, Michael Lewis lists what he thinks are the basic semantic meanings for each. I cite those meanings below and ask if you agree with them.

    Please remember, we are talking about the basic semantic meaning. In context, these auxiliaries take on wider meanings, but it is the basic meaning I want to discuss.


    Paraphrased.

    Can = I assert that it is possible that ...
    Could = I assert that it is "remotely" possible that ...

    I don't think that "assert" fits very well here because 'can/could' can be epistemically very weak. This is especially notable in speech where intonation strengthens or weakens 'can/could'.

    That caaaaaan happen. OR That cooooould happen.

    Also, while 'could' is used to discuss remote/impossible events, it can also be used as a near equivalent of 'can'.


    ===================

    May = If I have anything to do with it, it is possible that ...
    Might = If I have anything to do with it, it is "remotely" possible that ...

    I wonder why Mr Lewis has prefaced all these, eg. "If I have anything to do with it". I'd say that 'may' and 'might' have a discernible range of possibility, so they don't simply mean "it's possible that" and "it's remotely possible that".

    Those are more the meanings of 'can' and 'could', which only express "possibleness" but don't express any discernable range of possibility.

    'may' & 'might' express how certain a speaker is. They don't simply address that the speaker thinks something is possible.


    ===========================

    Must = I assert that it is necessary that ...

    Is 'must' never used to relate another's assertion? An equal core concept for 'must' is epistemic 'must'.

    Based on the available information, my logical deduction is that such and such is the case.

    That must be the plumber.


    ========================

    Will = Given my perception of the immediate situation, it is inevitable that ...

    Would = Given the (hypothetical) situation which I perceive at the moment of speaking, the action described is also inevitably true.

    These two, 'will' & 'would', like can/could are not always distinctly different. Rather than disjointed, I feel it's better to look at them as occupying the same scale.

    Certainly, 'would' covers the unreal/impossible end of this scale/spectrum and 'will' the real/possible end but they meet in the middle and sometimes it's possible to use one or the other with virtually no difference in meaning.


    =========================

    Shall = According to my perception of the present situation, it is, if it's anything to do with me, inevitable that ...

    I'd say that 'shall' and 'will' share this meaning and others and intonation and context would/will fill us in as its strength.

    ====================

    Should is dealt with separately as it is a far more complex auxiliary and has many meanings.

    I don't understand the distinction that is being made here by Mr Lewis. All the other other modals have epistemic and deontic meanings just as 'should' does. 'should' equates to probably/likely as regards epistemic meaning and I suggest that this level of epistemic strength gives it its deontic strength, occupying a level below 'must'.
    {From The English Verb by M Lewis. LTP 1986.}

  8. #8
    M56 Guest

    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    <Can = I assert that it is possible that ...
    Could = I assert that it is "remotely" possible that ...

    I don't think that "assert" fits very well here because 'can/could' can be epistemically very weak. This is especially notable in speech where intonation strengthens or weakens 'can/could'.

    That caaaaaan happen. OR That cooooould happen.

    Also, while 'could' is used to discuss remote/impossible events, it can also be used as a near equivalent of 'can'. >

    Is that to reply to an assetion? "That" is anaphoric, so something must have been asserted rearlier by another speaker. The use of can there is not being used in its basic semantic meaning, but either shows, doubt, support, or signals new, or contradictory information is to follow. That's why intonation is being used- to weaken or stengthen the original assertion.

    Example:

    It can snow even in high summer here.

    That can happen, but it hasn't snowed for at least ten years at that time of year.
    .............

    It can snow even in high summer here.

    Yes, that can happen, and it can go on for days.

  9. #9
    M56 Guest

    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    [QUOTE=DBP]M56:
    In his chapter on modal auxiliaries in The English Verb, Michael Lewis lists what he thinks are the basic semantic meanings for each. I cite those meanings below and ask if you agree with them.

    Please remember, we are talking about the basic semantic meaning. In context, these auxiliaries take on wider meanings, but it is the basic meaning I want to discuss.


    Paraphrased.

    Can = I assert that it is possible that ...
    Could = I assert that it is "remotely" possible that ...

    I don't think that "assert" fits very well here because 'can/could' can be epistemically very weak. This is especially notable in speech where intonation strengthens or weakens 'can/could'.

    That caaaaaan happen. OR That cooooould happen.

    Also, while 'could' is used to discuss remote/impossible events, it can also be used as a near equivalent of 'can'.


    ===================

    May = If I have anything to do with it, it is possible that ...
    Might = If I have anything to do with it, it is "remotely" possible that ...

    I wonder why Mr Lewis has prefaced all these, eg. "If I have anything to do with it". I'd say that 'may' and 'might' have a discernible range of possibility, so they don't simply mean "it's possible that" and "it's remotely possible that".

    Those are more the meanings of 'can' and 'could', which only express "possibleness" but don't express any discernable range of possibility.

    'may' & 'might' express how certain a speaker is. They don't simply address that the speaker thinks something is possible.


    ===========================

    Mr Lewis would say that possibility is the basic semantic meaning of many modals. They take on other, added, meanings in context, but possibility is the base.

    What do you think?

  10. #10
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    Default Re: Basic semantic meaning of modal auxiliaries

    That caaaaaan happen. OR That cooooould happen.

    This inotnation wouldn't work for me if 'that' were exophoric, but if it were exophoric, would it still carry the 'assert' meaning?

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