November 27, 2007

More on double modals: double tense?

Consider this question about Fred Thompson's might could: Is the second modal, could, a tensed form, or a plain form? If it is a plain form, then the form could would appear to have broken away from the can lexeme to become the plain form of a new lexeme, and we face the puzzle I briefly discuss here: if modals take the plain form on the following verb, we should expect to find them generally in to-infinitival clauses — we should encounter want to can, tried to could, hope to will, and so on, quite freely. But people don't seem to talk about examples like those nearly so much. (There certainly are large numbers of cases of used to could; but used is a truly strange and baffling form, which some people treat as itself belonging to the modal class, and for now I am ignoring it.) Now let's consider where we are if the could of might could is instead a tensed form. (In Standard English, modals are always tensed forms.) That would be compatible with my idle conjecture that in some dialects might has simply turned into an adverb. But for dialects like that, if there are any, we face a different puzzle: do we get other tensed forms after might? That is, do we find examples like the following in the relevant dialects?

[?*]Jeb might is out back fixing the tractor.
[?*]He might likes her more than he lets on.
[?*]We might didn't turn the oven off.

I do not know the answer to this question. But if we do not get these, and we do not get modals in infinitival clauses very much either, then I can definitely see why Marianna Di Paolo's classic paper on the topic ("Double Modals as Single Lexical Items", American Speech 64(3), Autumn 1989, pp. 195-224) suggested that the modal+modal pairs that are found might just be compound lexical items.

Annie Zaenen suggests that the answer may be that modals do indeed occur in infinitival contexts for a lot of people (which would support the view that modals have plain forms in the relevant dialects, against my suggestion regarding adverb status). She supplies a bunch of examples from corpora. The trouble is that quite a few of these are pretty clearly typing or editing errors. Some are incoherent in any dialect, like these (I have underlined the crucial parts, which look like errors of composition to me):

If the legislation gets out of the Judiciary Committee, to will go to the Rules Committee - the last stop before a bill gets onto the floor.

The following morning the plan is to go to may go to Normandy beaches (Omaha Beach was a very touching place even for Jasmine...)

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When I go to will say to him, ' How much for this pad of soles ? ' He will answer, ' Fourteen shillings.' 'Fourteen shillings!' I say, 'I'll give you seven ...

And some are obviously errors by inexpert (probably foreign or illiterate) users of English, like this one:

hi spontaneity!! you are gourgeous!!!! your videos are so sexy,you are so sexy!!!! you are in my friends list, I hope to will be in your! ...

But that doesn't mean they are all to be dismissed. These look like they might genuinely be grammatical and error-free in their dialects of origin:

This year horse racing fans will again flock to the Downs and bet on their favorite contender to will go on to race for the Triple Crown honors.

KW is to write an article to may go to local press.

"With the new functionality provided by the pathology search capability and mining we hope to will provide our staff with a greater level of insight into ...

I took a year off for an internship, and hope to will attend Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania starting in April of 2007.

We hope to will have - but have yet to confirm - Limor at our CustomerMade conference in Copenhagen two weeks forward. Limor should be able to give Soeren ...

"Let's wait for the Easter Bunny," referring to his dream claim that GM hopes to will have a test mule with the Volt's drivetrain on the streets by spring ...

With the new 3G network, DST hopes to will bring mobile communication services in Brunei to new heights, offering DST customers one of fastest mobile data ...

So there may be dialects in which will appears freely in infinitival clauses. The topic continues to look intriguing. And quite puzzling.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 27, 2007 06:14 AM