Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Language stuff - modality

Prior to studying E303, my experience of modal verbs had basically come from learning foreign languages - most specifically, the verbs pouvoir, devoir and vouloir which we learnt in O-level French. I had never been given grammatical categories for the same things in English, although obviously I could see how il peut mapped onto he can; voulez-vous onto do you want, and so on. They work as forms of auxiliary verbs - that is, they don't function as the main process in a sentence.

There are two categories of modal verbs - epistemic, which are modal verbs that relate to the likelihood of something being true, and deontic, which are modal verbs relating to possibility or necessity of action. They can be ranked according to their strength - O'Halloran, in the E303 textbooks, offers the following scale of epistemic modal verbs, from strongest to weakest:
  • will
  • would
  • must (in the sense of "he must be there" - "surely he's there")
  • may
  • might
  • could
  • can
and of deontic modal verbs:
  • has to
  • must (in the sense of "he must do it" - "if he doesn't do it, he's doomed")
  • had better
  • ought
  • should
  • needs to
  • is supposed to
Modal verbs are used differently in different forms of discourse. If we consider conversation, we tend to hedge - that is, we tend to make statements less assertively than if we were writing them down. Strong modality tends to come across as being forceful, and thus rude. There are other means of toning down the modality - for example, by personalising statements - I don't think that's true or even I'm sure that's not true both have less strong modality than That's not true.

In song lyrics, the dominant epistemic modal verbs in the 33000 word corpus I constructed were:
  • will (also counting 'll, I'll, won't) (307 occurrences)
  • can (can't) (290 occurrences)
  • would (I'd, wouldn't) (101 occurrences)
  • could (couldn't) (59 occurrences)
The use of deontic modality is much less common, and the most common verbs were:
  • had to (have to, has to, got to) (51 occurrences)
  • should (33 occurrences)
  • need to (needed to, needs to) (18 occurrences)
  • must (15 occurrences)
The frequency of use of strong deontic modality was very similar to what is found in the fiction corpus. However, in fiction, the use of the verb "must" is much more common than it is in song lyrics, which lean much more on "need to" and "have to".

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