November 25, 2007

GOP double modal face-off!

Last week I noted a double modal construction with might (or, if you prefer, a case of non-standard adverbial might) as used by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on "Fox News Sunday." Huckabee, who hails from Arkansas, told Chris Wallace, "if this bipartisan commission had actually studied the fair tax, they might would have had a different conclusion." I wrote (more presciently than I could have guessed):

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.

As if on cue, Thompson went on "Fox News Sunday" earlier today and responded thusly to a question contrasting his position on abortion to Huckabee's (Thompson favors repealing Roe vs. Wade and leaving abortion regulation to the states, while Huckabee favors a "human life amendment" to the Constitution):

What the situation is now is as follows. Because of Roe vs. Wade, all states are restricted from passing rules that they otherwise would maybe like to pass with regard to this area. If you abolish Roe vs. Wade, you're going to allow every state to pass reasonable rules that they might see fit to pass.
When we had control of the House, had control of the Senate, had control of the presidency, there wasn't a serious effort to put forth a constitutional amendment because people knew that it couldn't pass — couldn't pass, wouldn't pass.
What I've been talking about is directing our energy toward something that was halfway practical, something that might could get done. [audio]

Might could is in fact the most common double (or multiple) modal construction — see, for instance, the corpus of examples from the Carolinas collected by Margaret Mishoe and Michael Montgomery ("The Pragmatics of Multiple Modal Variation in North and South Carolina," American Speech, Vol. 69, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 3-29), where might could appears in 57 out of 236 multiple modal tokens attested. Might would have is much rarer (it's unclear if Mishoe and Montgomery collected any examples in their Carolina corpus, or if a few were folded into the 37 might would tokens).

So Thompson might could be matching Huckabee's dog whistle, while at the same time avoiding any of the more exotic constructions found in the relevant dialect regions. That way Thompson can sound Southern but not too Southern... call it the grammatical Goldilocks effect.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 25, 2007 06:32 PM