Modality in Contemporary English

Modality in Contemporary English

Modality in Contemporary English

Modality in Contemporary English


This book offers original theoretical accounts and a wealth of descriptive information concerning modality in present-day English. At the same time, it provides fresh impetus to more general linguistic issues such as grammaticalization, colloquialization, or the interplay between sociolinguistic and syntactic constraints. The articles fall into four sections: (a) the semantics and pragmatics of core modal verbs; (b) the status of emerging modal items; (c) stylistic variation and change; (d) sociolinguistic variation and syntactic models. The book is of considerable value to students and teachers of English and Linguistics at undergraduate and graduate level worldwide.


Stéphane Gresset

Apart from a few exceptions it has been felt that, with the expenditure of
sufficient effort, our knowledge of the world could be made more
precise. But more recently there has been a growing awareness that the
imprecision of the world might be inherent and that this should
therefore be an essential component of any theory.
(Jennifer Coates)

While there is general agreement as to the distinction between the epistemic uses of might and the non-epistemic or root uses of could (ability, permission and root possibility), most authors also provide examples of an epistemic use of could, therefore raising the question of the nature of the difference between might and could in their so-called epistemic uses.

Leech (1987: 120–121) suggests that it is difficult to see any difference between might and could in examples such as There could be trouble at the Springboks match tomorrow/The door might be locked already/Our team might still win the race. According to Quirk et al. (1985: 233), in There could be something wrong with the light switch and Of course, I might be wrong, "could and might have the same meaning and both express the epistemic possibility associated with may". Biber et al. (1999: 491–493) consider that "in academic prose, could, may and might usually express logical possibility", that "could and might are much more common expressing logical possibility than permission or ability", and that "in contrast to the typical functions of can, the modal could usually marks logical possibility in conversation, expressing a greater degree of uncertainty or tentativeness: That could be her/It could be anything you choose." Going over some of the exponents of epistemic possibility in English, Coates (1995: 58, 63) mentions an example of could ("The only snag is that it has been raining … and I could get held up for anything up to a week"), which, she comments, is evidence that "could is making headway as an alternative to might in the expression of (epistemic) tentative (meaning)".

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