April 08, 2006

Quasi-modal be in Family Circus

Back on Thursday, Josh Fruhlinger at the Comics Curmudgeon let loose with

... an extended shout-out to my professional linguist homies over at the Language Log, who have linked to me several times despite my near-total absence of linguistics content), I’ve always found the verb construction Mom’s deploying here pretty stilted and weird. It’s a verb of being governing a negative infinitive, which makes it … well, hell, if I knew that, I’d be writing “I analyze syntax so you don’t have to,” or, you know, the Language Log, instead of this thing. I reached back a decade and rummaged around my half-remembered memories of Latin for a while and came out with the phrase “hortatory subjunctive,” but I don’t think that’s right. Anyway, it does have a certain advantage in that saying “Don’t open it until you get home” would make her look pretty dumb, since he’s already opened it. This way she gets to make a general statement of fact without having to either ignore or explicitly acknowledge the reality of her greedy, gobbly, smarmy little brat of a son.

If Josh were like some people, he would have just randomly gone with "passive tense" or "hortatory dative" or something, but he didn't. Instead, he asked for terminological help, and here it is, two days after the Language Log batsignal went up (which is like a month in blog time) and we haven't responded. Well, none of the syntacticians seem to be on duty here at Language Log Plaza this weekend, so I'll try to fill in. The thing is, I'm a phonetician, not a syntactician, and I'm not entirely sure what this construction ought to be called either.

As far as I know, it doesn't have an established name in traditional grammar. The OED gives sense II 11b. for to:

Expressing duty, obligation, or necessity. (a) with inf. act.: is to..= is bound to, has to.., must.., ought to...

and gives these citations, among others:

1591 SHAKES. Two Gent. II. iii. 37 Thy Master is ship'd, and thou art to post after with oares.
-- Merry W. IV. ii. 128 You are not to goe loose any longer, you must be pinnion'd.
1887 'L. CARROLL' Game of Logic i. §1. 9 What, then, are you to do?

And CGEL distinguishes among six uses of be (p. 113):

i She was a lawyer.
[copula be]
ii She was sleeping peacefully.
[progressive be]
iii They were seen by the security guard.
[passive be]
iv You are not to tell anyone.
[quasi-modal be]
v She has been to Paris twice already.
[motional be]
vi Why don't you be more tolerant?
[lexical be]

The be in iv is called "quasi-modal" because it

has clear semantic affinities with the central modal auxiliaries, and syntactically it resembles them in ... [that] it can't appear in a secondary form: *I resent being not to tell anyone, *The meeting had been to be chaired by the premier. It lacks all the other modal auxiliary properties, however; it has agreement forms, it takes an infinitival with to, it can't occur in a remote apodosis, and its preterities do not occur with the modal remoteness meaning.

So I guess the right terminology would be something like "quasi-modal be with an infinitive of obligation", though this may redundantly ascribe to be and to the responsibility for a single construction type.

[In the CC comments section, Jimmy says that

Thel should have said "you weren't to open those until we got home,"which is a usage of the Past Future Perfect Laudatory Declamatory Tense Twice Removed...

and Scipio tries heroically to assimilate it to Latin:

I think what you're searching for is "negative future passive participle", specifically,
"tibi non aperturum est donec domi revenerimus."
"it's not to be opened by you until we shall have returned home."


[Jonathan Lundell wrote to object that

No, quasi-modal be in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Ouch. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 8, 2006 01:06 PM