November 20, 2007

Might would have

You don't get to hear a finely turned double modal from a major presidential candidate very often these days. On "Fox News Sunday," the host Chris Wallace grilled former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee about his plan for a "fair tax," i.e., a sales tax of 23 percent on goods and services that would supplant the federal income tax. Wallace pointed out that a bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush had firmly rejected this type of tax as unworkable. Huckabee responded:

Well, the only problem is twofold. First, they didn't really study the fair tax. They simply studied a type of consumption tax, not the actual proposal that was designed by some of the leading economists in this country. The fair tax was not just something I cooked up. Frankly, I wish I had. But it was designed by the leading economists from MIT, Boston University, Harvard, Stanford, people like Arthur Laffer, one of Reagan's key economic architects. Had $20 million of research that went into the proposal.
So, if this bipartisan commission had actually studied the fair tax, they might would have had a different conclusion. [audio]

Double modals with might, such as might could, might should, might oughta, and might would, are chiefly limited to Southern and South Midland dialects, and they can sound downright peculiar to anyone outside of those regions. MWDEU states:

The might in these constructions seems to intensify the notion of possibility or speculation; to the outsider who does not use the forms, the might seems to be similar in force to perhaps.

Marianna Di Paolo deals with these constructions in greater detail in her article "Double Modals as Single Lexical Items" (American Speech, Vol. 64, No. 3, Autumn 1989, pp. 195-224). Huckabee's "might would have" falls under Di Paolo's "hypothetical" category, as illustrated by:

I might would've done it if he'd've told me to.

Further examples of this type can be found in "The Pragmatics of Multiple Modal Variation in North and South Carolina" by Margaret Mishoe and Michael Montgomery (American Speech, Vol. 69, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 3-29). Mishoe and Montgomery note an unusual case of "might would have" spoken by a television character well outside of the expected dialect region for the construction:

I'm gonna give a little demonstration of what might would have happened to that guy if we'd have fought.

That sentence was spoken by Cliff Clavin on "Cheers," set in Boston. (And the actor, John Ratzenberger, is from Bridgeport, Connecticut.) That's a real anomaly, since as Mr. Verb recently pointed out, double modals tend to be heavily stigmatized even in regions where they're known and used. But perhaps Huckabee's "might would have" is a dog whistle to working-class Southern supporters, demonstrating he's really a man of the people. If so, look for some one-upsmanship from Tennesseean Fred Thompson. Maybe he'll tell Huckabee that he might should oughta change his mind about that "fair tax."

[Update: More from Geoff Pullum here, and from Joe Salmons here.]

[Update, Nov. 25: Fred Thompson did indeed match Huckabee's double modal on "Fox News Sunday" the following week. Details here.]

[Update, Nov. 27: Further explorations from Geoff Pullum here, here, and here, and from Joe Salmons here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 20, 2007 01:12 AM