Chapter 1 – Aspects of Modality in English

Pragmatics studies how the transmission of meaning depends not only on the linguistic knowledge (e.g. grammar, lexicon etc.) of the speaker and listener, but also on the context of the utterance, knowledge about the status of those involved, the inferred intent of the speaker, and so on. In this respect, pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity, since meaning relies on the manner, place, time etc. of an utterance. The ability to understand another speaker's intended meaning is called pragmatic competence. Central to discussions on modality are the notions of possibility, necessity and impossibility; logicians and philosophers, ever since Aristotle, have defined these notions together with the relations which may be perceived to exist between them; such investigations provide the basis of modal logic, which today is one of the most pursued branches of logic. The problem is that different disciplines have each approached the notion from different starting points, asking different questions on the basis of different theoretical assumptions; in each case, the nature of the question posed and of the goals set have led to different answers, i.e. different descriptions. A first attempt may be to consider the type of mental attitude and experience that involves the notions of possibility, necessity and impossibility. Michael Perkins says in Modal Expressions in English: ”To put it quite simply, it would appear that such notions are conceptually grounded on the fact that human beings often think and behave as though things might be or might have been other than they actually are (or were). Such a worldview appears to constitute an essential part of the fabric of our everyday lives. For example, the fact that it is raining, that the car has broken down and that I am late for work does not prevent me from imagining myself arriving at work on time […] in a quietly purring car in brilliant sunshine.” To talk about things being otherwise than they actually are is to talk about ALTERNATIVE, about conceivable though not actual states of affairs; such talk is known in logical studies as talk about other possible states of affairs or other possible worlds. It has been shown that the principles governing the use of modal expressions in ordinary language differ from those on which the use of their logical counterparts is based. Although the modal systems used by logicians cannot adequately explain the behaviour of modal expressions in the language, they can, nevertheless, serve as a basis for understanding how modality works in natural languages. So, in Perkins’s example above, the fact that it is raining, that the car has broken down and that the speaker is late for work pertain to the actual state off affairs. A possible alternative course of events is a “world” in which the

Chapter 1 speaker conceives himself arriving in time, in brilliant sunshine, in a perfectly functioning car. We can say that to conceive of something being otherwise is to conceive its being real in some non-actual world or in some state of the actual world at a point in time other than the present. M. Perkins remarks that “broadly speaking, the actual world is itself just one of an infinite set of possible worlds and, as such, it is not exclusively significant. Talk about possible worlds is noteworthy in so far as they are contrasted with and relative to the current, actual world. To say that “Mary ought to be a loyal friend to Ann” is to say that there is a state of affairs in which, according to the principles of morality, when a person interacts with other people, she is loyal.” No need to stress the fact that what ought to happen is not exactly what actually happens, which means that moral statements do not derive from examples, rather they are grounded on a system of duties which reside in human reason. Perkins shows that there are three general systems of principles that can be involved when one studies the modalities: firstly, there are the modalities which conform to the rational laws of deduction. They are concerned with the interpretation of the world via the laws of human reason and are known as EPISTEMIC MODALITY. The term epistemic derives from “episteme”, the Greek word for “knowledge”. Perkins aptly points out that, in fact, “the key concept which underlies modality is the state of lack of knowledge”. “To know” that something is the case means that it, actually, is the case; of course, there are cases when one can “know” something and be mistaken, but then, one’s knowledge is no longer knowledge. But to be certain (an epistemic modality) that something is the case does not mean that it really is the case. The second set of principles concerning modalities is defined in terms of social/institutional laws. These are of two general kinds: on the one hand, are those laws explicitly involving some legal authority or institution; on the other hand, are the usually less formal laws relating to social status, according to which one person may be said to have personal authority over another; in fact, there is no absolute dividing line between the two. The modalities that conform to social laws regard the sphere of duty, compulsion, order, command, instruction, appropriateness, and are known as DEONTIC MODALITY. The third set of principles concerning modalities has in view the relationship between actual (empirical) circumstances or states of affairs, and the states of affairs that follow from them in accordance with natural laws (the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy etc.) These modalities define the notion of capacity (physical or intellectual) and are known as ABILITY/DYNAMIC MODALITY. The three general systems of principles (rational/the laws of reason, social/the laws of society, natural/the laws of nature) define three different

There are three envisageable courses of events conceived as alternatives to the actual world. they form the theoretical background against which the nature of the English modal expressions will be determined. .Chapter 1 types of states of affairs/worlds.

Applications Chapter 2 – Context and Modality 2. Pragmatics and the Description of Discourse. their communicative functions and the contexts/settings in which given linguistic forms have given functions. In his study. as well as the speech acts they can be used to perform. the role they can play in on-going conversations. Communication and language production being organically bound to human beings and extra-linguistic situations. the semantic and the pragmatic factors involved in the use of utterances in natural languages. SEMANTICS as form+function relates the grammatical forms with their potential communicative functions. Many linguists have lately felt a real need for a theory of pragmatics in addition to syntax and semantics. a subset of . Context and Modality Language production starts from an extra-linguistic real-world situation.1. semantics and pragmatics and their interrelation as follows: SYNTAX as form characterizes the grammatical forms that occur in a language: the structural organization of sentences and the co-occurrence possibilities among lexical items in particular kinds of grammatical constructions. the speaker performs a speech act which involves a series of logical hierarchical choices of the linguistic elements at his disposal. to determine their appropriate use and to provide adequate descriptions and explanations. etc. that is with what users of a language can do with these forms. namely the necessity to contextualize. one must refer to many levels of language. The discourse rules. Fillmore has emphasized an idea which is old in anthropology and philology. any adequate description of utterances should account for the relationships between the real-world extra-linguistic context and the linguistic choices made by the participants in the discourse. under what circumstances. Charles Fillmore has defined syntax. to maintain a proper balance between the syntactic. not only the superficial (surface) syntactic environment and the logical semantic structure. but also the social context in which the discourse occurs must be brought into consideration. The proper interpretation of utterances can be a very complicated matter. When the situation eliciting language appears. which will best suit his communicative intentions. in terms of the propositional content they can be used to express. PRAGMATICS as form+function+context is concerned with the relation between linguistic forms. to “anchor” utterances in some social system as a condition for understanding how they can be used. It is in the discourse context that one can best see what the participants are doing and what they are experiencing.

To be more specific.identify the situation in which certain forms and syntactic configuration are usable in his language. not syntactic or semantic. contexts that are strictly speaking extra-linguistic.the syntactic features and semantic values . Consequently. they determine what answers qualify as appropriate responses to a certain act. although in terms of surface syntax the two languages might appear very different. he must ‘transpose’ contextual social and cultural concepts.Applications which is referred to as conversation rules. Notice that in the following sentences only one Romanian modal corresponds to the two English verbs: .the relationships between – the speaker and the addressee/surface subject . one has to know: . The problem of the equivalence or synonymy between two modals. besides syntactic and semantic elements.determine the means by which the target language makes these distinctions. for second language teaching/learning and also for translation and interpretation. are also to be found in the area of pragmatics. one must: . govern the conditions under which it is appropriate to perform one type of illocutionary act. The rules that enable one to define and classify them. Therefore. also.the impression the speaker wants to make on the hearer etc. pragmatic factors are clearly involved in the use and choice of modal expressions. the parallelism is not complete and the explanation is pragmatic.the social position assumed by the participants in the discourse .the source and the goal of modality . there are environments in which only one is possible or appropriate. and . Similarly.the contextual assumptions shared by the participants in the discourse . a translator’s task is compound: in addition to merely translating words and ideas. the concepts of pragmatics and contextualization have great relevance for the applied linguist. If one is to teach/learn second language use successfully. MUST and SHOULD in their epistemic sense are often taken together under the label probably/likely and are assumed to be semantic equivalents. . to account for their often peculiar behaviour.pair the two. to tell whether they are appropriately used and determine that use. yet. in the real-world context of the utterance. between a modal and a lexical/cognate verb or between a modal and an idiom/apparent paraphrase is a good example to consider. although the concept of probability is present in both. for the contrastive analyst.

Consider also: You must go now. In Romanian the modal a putea does not make the performative/nonperformative distinction.Este posibil sa/Poate ca… Another intriguing relationship is that between English modals and their paraphrases. may also be used both performatively. it can also be used to give permission. or to report permission. a-ti fi permis is chiefly used to report the existence of permission. while the other’s is not. in b) he merely reports that the subject has permission. the paraphrases existing only to fill the syntactic gaps where the simple modals were not available. ai voie (de la mine) sa fumezi and non-performatively. if we consider the following sentences. Trebuie sa pleci acum 1 incorrect . Trebuie sa pleci acum. they were regarded as perfect synonyms. In a) the speaker himself is giving permission or indicates his approval of it. Until recently. Trebuie sa pleci acum You’ve got to go now. They are not exact. b1) Iti este permis sa fumezi. b) You are allowed to smoke. as in a1). But. Ar trebui sa ajungem la cabana inainte de a se intuneca. Can is closer to logical possibility and is paraphrasable in English by it is possible for… to. c1) Ti se da voie sa fumezi/Ai voie sa fumezi. ai voie (de la tatal tau) sa fumezi. You have to go now. respectively: I can be there in time – It is possible for me to… I may be there in time – It is possible that… Pot sa fiu acolo la timp – Am posibilitatea/Imi este posibil sa… . we shall easily notice that there are semantic distinctions and differences in distribution and use between them.Applications You must/*should1 be out of your mind! Trebuie sa fii scrantit/ca nu esti intreg la minte! We should/*must get there before dark. while may is closer to epistemic possibility corresponding to may: a avea posibilitatea. Both CAN and MAY partake of the notion of possibility. yet what is described as possible by the former is different from what is described as possible by the latter. the phrase a da voie. as in c1). a) You may smoke. interchangeable equivalents and there are contexts where the use of one is appropriate. a-ti fi posibil and a fi posibil/cu putinta. a avea voie. the other paraphrase. but the speaker may be opposed to the idea. a1) Poti fuma/Iti dau voie sa fumezi. poate (ca).

advise. ought to. In conclusion. possible. probably. tend. could. invitation. The subcategory of modals . Expressions of Modality. probable. c) seems closer to b). COULD. guess. may. possibly. expectation etc. happen and. legal. likely. must. instruction. a trebui. apparently. should. necessarily. prophecy. Some grammarians also consider a class of modal candidates involving such verbs as seem. certain. the addressee needs to catch a train. trust etc. hopefully. the English modals do not constitute a uniform class. think. . a speaker will choose what will best suit his communicative intentions in a particular contextual situation. presume. necessary. hypothesis. certainty. perhaps. hope.modal verbs: can. WOULD. realizing the conceptual sphere of the three systems of law discussed above: rational. in point of their syntax. imagine.adverbs: allegedly. from the modal expressions available to him. insist.verbs: assume. supposedly etc. will.nouns: allegation. request. Some Examples At the level of linguistic manifestation. a sub-class of what might be called pure/syntactic modals includes such items as CAN. believe. lawful. dare. Hence the importance of pragmatic elements. command. b) is apt to be used when. obviously. Syntactic Behaviour From the point of view of their surface syntactic behaviour. fear. assumption. fancy. in addition to the syntactic and semantic ones. Chapter 3 – Modal Verbs 3. . evidently. 2. know. need. feel. for all the modal expressions used in the above English sentences. imperative. permissible etc. MAY. All these lexical items have been termed modal expressions in virtue of the fact that they appear to express the same type of meaning.1. WILL. presumably. say. MIGHT. . might. seemingly.2. . the different modal expressions belong to different syntactic classes and have widely different syntactic properties: . Romanian uses one modal. social and natural.Applications Sentence a) may be used when the speaker himself sets the obligation. would. compulsory. and does not make the distinction between obligation imposed by the speaker and obligation derived from other constraints. as well as cause and make. for an adequate interpretation of modal expressions. doubt. shall. certainly. proposal. possibly. SHOULD and MUST. one can identify a set of modal expressions on the basis of their shared semantic characteristics previously discussed. believe. suspect.adjectives: sure. SHALL.

that the English modals are main verbs in the deep structure and this ‘unverblike behaviour’ is due to what E. Bara calls “history-specific development of the English language”. the grammaticality of the following examples shows that concepts such as possibility.they do not have non-finite forms (infinitives. It is possible. have to. used to. are complemented by a verb in its infinitive form. behaves like the syntactic modals. obligation. which has been used as an argument to characterize them as auxiliaries or semi-/quasi-auxiliaries. where may signals epistemic possibility and need/have to deontic necessity. The treatment of ought to. be to. participles). therefore. *will may.Applications that is intermediate between the pure modals and the modal candidates is generally referred to as quasi-/semi-modals/modal paraphrases and traditionally includes items as dare. Unlike them. ought to. permission. . singular. . among other things. It has been assumed. The syntactic modals exhibit the following idiosyncratic features or. . *shall must However. it exhibits person and number agreement (am. present tense (do not participate in number agreement). but they cannot. were). mainly but not exclusively. be to.they do not co-occur in constructions like *must can. in the spoken language. must be reading. used to. here are some of their most important features: OUGHT TO is considered not to belong to the true verb category in the surface structure because it cannot pass the test for verbs. invert with the subject in interrogation. be both expressed by syntactic modals. BE TO. have to. . has past tense syntax and may appear in the infinitive and not occupy the leftmost position in the VP: Worse still may be to come. is. to have a combination of modalities in a sentence. These features are: . In present-day (American) English. ought to is very often reduced to otta. need. can be directly negated by not. in almost all respects. very often called ‘unverblike properties’. be about to. are. however.they occupy the leftmost position in the verb phrase (may leave. being a syntactic modal with idiosyncratic surface behaviour. be able to. be going to. in general. was. will have been told). ability are not necessarily mutually exclusive: You may need to/have to call again. dare and need varies from author to author. they they they they do not allow do-support.they do not take the concord morpheme –s on the 3rd person.

like ‘true’ verbs: Have you (got) to leave right now? Do you have to leave? In negation also. perhaps. dared in the past).Applications HAVE TO agrees in person and number (have. The most common terms used for them are pseudo-/quasi-modals. two possible interrogative forms (used you to?. Leech. have to is either directly negated by not or allows dosupport: Hadn’t you got to do it? Didn’t you have to do it? USED TO is in present-day English a very defective verb. may. only with the 1st person singular. *Note that when it is used with the meaning to challenge. it may both invert with the subject. F. two possible negative forms (usedn/t to. a) dare behaves like a regular verb in the affirmative (dare/dares in the present.2. They need not go/don’t need to go. 3. displays a formal behaviour that is characteristic of both syntactic modals and ordinary verbs. without any significant difference in meaning. b) need may also occur either as an uninflected syntactic modal or as an inflected regular verb: in positive statements the ‘true’ verb is commonly used. like the syntactic modals. except after the inflected forms needs and needed. should) as seen by such grammarians as O. Palmer is based on a semantic dimension of meaning present in the . might. Jespersen. must. In the negative and interrogative it may appear either as an ordinary verb or a syntactic modal: Do you/does he dare? Dare you/he? Negative and interrogative forms with do/does/did are in theory followed by the to-infinitive. DARE. as well as NEED. didn’t use to). In interrogation. dare is an ordinary transitive verb: I dare you to fill in for me and see how hard it is. Note that the forms with do-support seem to be more common. it is a perfectly regular transitive verb: He needs all the support he can get. Their use as syntactic modals is relatively rare in British English and even more restricted in American English. when the to-infinitive is always used. has) and has past tense syntax. having one past form for all persons. When need is used with the meaning to require. G. would. or allow do-support.R. Need you go?/ Do/Did you need to go? *Notice that the complement verb following need may be used either in the long or the short infinitive. while in negations and questions both forms are possible: I need/needed to go. shall) and the ‘secondary modals’ (could. did you use to?). Modals and Tenses The distinction between the sometimes called ‘primary modals’ (can. It should be pointed out that it is not much used in the affirmative except. but in practice the to is often omitted: He doesn’t dare (to) say it right (in)to my face. will. in the expression I daresay. He doesn’t need our pity.

though a very important one.Applications secondary modals and possessed only to a minimal degree by the primary ones. you might have had an accident. needn’t + have-en never occur as deontic and ability modalities. it can express both tentative possibility and counterfactuality (contrary-toreality). In conclusion. while most traditional ones view it simply as a problem of past time reference (Jespersen). Tentativeness. . This is because epistemic modality is related to speaker-now and does not have tense itself. a lower degree of certainty: They might be telling the truth (although I very much doubt that). there are cases when these forms may be used to express ‘earlierness’ in time. when simple epistemic modals combine with the perfect marker on the complement verb (perfect infinitive) it is the latter which signals ‘past’. a more tentative probability. should. But speakers of English seldom recognize them as an indication of past time. It is generally claimed that forms like could. would. *Note that the construction expresses a present requirement (must) concerning a past process (have obtained). Nevertheless. might. The perfect marker have-en can also indicate counterfactual possibility: The car is in such a bad condition that you might have got into trouble but for the safety belt. Some grammarians speak of a common hypothetical meaning shared by the secondary modals (Leech). for example. A special type of ‘remoteness’ is ‘unreality’ or ‘counterfactuality’: I told you time and time again not to drive so fast. is understood as a more remote possibility. because it will be furthered in the chapters dedicated to each modal. They are rather felt as markers of some kind of ‘remoteness’ from the reality immediately perceptible at the moment of encoding. ought to. taken out of the context. *Notice that. in which case the sequence of tenses occurs. We shall not insist on this aspect. One exception may be deontic must which has no corresponding past/oblique forms: Applicants for this position must have obtained a diploma in the past five years. they can only appear with epistemic meanings. This happens when the time sphere is past and is indicated by a deictic marker or an introductory verb in the past tense. others of a formal/tentative meaning (Palmer). might have had is ambiguous.

The meanings of the modals will be distinguished from the speech acts they may be used to perform. but it is by no means the only possible.ability/dynamic modalities – expressing potentiality. In actual use. however. (permission) There are. obligation. virtual certainty. The progressive marker be-ing can combine with modals. we feel bound to sum up the basic meanings they occur with: . the modals appear with many overtones.Applications Things are different with simple deontic or ability modals. *Note that neither dare not nor used to can occur with this construction. When have-en co-occurs with past/oblique forms of the modals. To conclude. Thus. thus permitting the modals to signal ‘tentativeness’ or ‘unreality/non-fulfillment’. obligation. suggestions etc. whereas need can: I needn’t have invited him over. that’s why we couldn’t find them home. understand etc. resemble. necessity. . certainty. with the literal meanings mentioned above they may appear in direct speech acts such as statements. but with certain restrictions referring to those verbs that cannot be usually used in the progressive aspect (know. contexts which allow deontic uses of modals to occur with the be-ing marker: I shouldn’t be talking to you. however. orders. Chapter 4 – Meanings and Uses of the English Modal Verbs Before dealing with each of the modal verbs previously mentioned. they often participate in indirect speech acts whose illocutionary force differs from that of the direct act suggested by their surface structure: offers. he’s such a bore. invitations. We can’t say: She can have smoked and mean She was able to smoke. the preferred or dominant interpretation in this combination is the epistemic reading. etc. I think they may travel abroad since they have their passports on them. . I don’t even know you. . it indicates past time. shades of meaning and degrees of intensity that can only be identified in the discourse context.) Sometimes the be-ing morpheme may distinguish between possible and permissive MAY: I think they may be visiting some relatives in Bucharest.logical/epistemic modalities – expressing possibility. probability. (=possibility). negations of possibility. probability. In addition. questions. capability.deontic modalities – signaling permission. requests.

to indicate that the subject accomplishes the task: In this way we are able to carry out our research. and permission can (deontic modality). possibility can (epistemic modality). the sentence I ran fast but couldn’t catch the bus is correct.since can has no non-finite forms. and its occurrence is much greater in written texts. these conditions are: .be able to is preferred if the TR (time reference) of the sentence is present. As given by F. a function of the contexts in which it occurs.Applications 4. In all these examples. The subject of all these sentences is animate.. according to Palmer. As the examples indicate. . Other grammarians consider that the polysemy of can is. the permission sense (replacing may in everyday. They can’t speak a word of English but they can make themselves understood. as questions of ability rise only in connection with animate creatures. If the TR is past and if the situation is a single accomplished occurrence. There is no such perfect equivalence between the two.be able to is a little more formal than can. be able to is used. but it has been claimed that there are conditions that favour the use of be able to rather than can. a process is going on. So. Thus we come to distinguish between ability can (dynamic modality). Ken can drive. CAN Like all the other modal verbs.1. is able to says can and does. Can you feel the tension between them? The present study is meant to show evidence that infants can and do solve problems at a relatively simple perceptual level. In the first one. can may be replaced by be able to. ABILITY CAN He doesn’t trust too many people. . can and be able to are not always freely interchangeable. only be able to is used: I ran and was able to catch (not could) the train. 4. colloquial language) and the possibility sense. Palmer. only be able to is available after other modal verbs: might be/should be/has got to be/must be able to etc. Consider also the following examples: Ken is driving.1. . can is considered by traditional studies a polysemous word having three different senses: the ability sense (both physical and mental). *Note that in the negative. What it should also be remembered is that if there is an intention to specify that the task is accomplished. but he cannot resist his little grandson.R.1. it can be rephrased as Look! Ken is able to drive. in fact.

I can tell you the truth if you will hear it. instead of different senses of the modal can. Joan of Arc can hear voices telling her to save France. a previous occasion on which Ken demonstrated his ability to drive. So. be bothered: He can never really believe that when somebody takes a drug it is actually going to harm him. Can occurs with verbs of mental cognition like understand. it combines offer and suggestion: Do come early and we can have a drink. possible environments of it. The contribution of can to the meaning of the sentence seems to be to relate the event referred to to some external circumstance which is not explicitly identified. remember. then can with you does not function as a question about the addressee’s capacity to carry out the action. we can conclude that. Consider some examples in which can is used contextually to indicate that action should be taken: . but the existence of which is assumed. again according to Palmer. and which is such as not to preclude the event from occurring.with a 2nd person pronoun it suggests that action be taken by the person addressed: You can certainly give me a call back tonight. and that a similar occurrence may happen again. we can speak about different possible environments of it. can is used to make an offer: We can also give you a copy of the document if you wish.Applications In the second sentence. What you can remember out of his speech is what really matters. At the pragmatic level. bear. we shall remark that can may be used to indicate different speech acts. stand. Taking some more examples as: She can tell awful things sometimes. but it is not clear if the initiative is his or not: I’ll send him to see what he can do and then he can call you. think. . Can you see me wearing something like that? Such examples represent contextual extensions of ability can. can says can and will do. If the context is an interrogative one. where the speaker speaks on behalf of someone else. . He can lift that huge suitcase.with 1st person pronouns.with 3rd person pronouns. . Our local team can beat yours. the speaker merely assumes some circumstances. but as a request that he do so: Can you hold on? Can you give me a hand with this? If we is used inclusively. no process is going on. I or exclusive we.

simply: We can always/simply/just not go. the affirmative past tense form for accomplished tasks is was/were able to. . Interrogation – both can and be able to occur in interrogative sentences. The past time reference of can with sensation verbs is formed by using could: From where I stood. The modal verb can be marked as future by will/shall be able to: When you’re in your eighties you’ll be able to say that you are old and wise. But Palmer shows that it is also possible to negate the event by using emphatic not: We can/can’t not go.Applications Syntactic behaviour 1. I could see the moon. and then all he could think of was his career. could is the rule: I could stand up and tell them my opinion whenever I wanted to.couldn’t occurs in all types of negative contexts to indicate that an event was not accomplished: Only when he died.little. Such forms are a little more natural with always. does not indicate an event that takes place now. with be able to either the auxiliary be is negated or unable is used instead: We have to take into consideration the fact that they weren’t able/were unable to elaborate on the matter at stake. recurrent event is intended. 4. as shown above. nearly which create an overall negative context: Little could he make out of the text he was given for analysis. just. Palmer discusses some cases in which could is used instead: . Therefore. I could understand all he said.in contexts in which a habitual. Past time reference . A negative meaning of the entire context favours could with the same interpretation of non-accomplished task: He could hardly breathe. let alone speak. the temporal sphere of can is present and extended present. not of realized task: In the state she was she could actually kill someone. We’ll be able to save an awful lot of money by living there.when an accomplishment is a matter of potentiality. his wife realized she could not live without him. it merely indicates that circumstances are such as not to preclude such an eventuality: You’ll go to Ireland any time you like as long as you can get a good job there. scarcely.As already stated. One moment she seemed to be everything to him. 3. Could is also used with negative items like hardly. can’t we? 2. Negation Usually only the modal verb is negated. Future time reference Can. . . Nevertheless.

Until quite recently it has been fashionable for popular grammar books to state that it is incorrect to use can in contexts in which permission is given.1. Yet. In sum. be able to indicates an accomplished task. .a distinction is to be drawn between present ability that can accomplish something in the future (can). unlike can. but merely as a less polite version of may. the distinction between present ability and future ability can be clearly seen in the following examples: He will be able to run faster next year (future ability). can is more widely used than may as an auxiliary of permission in colloquial English. be able to is preferred. Perkins gives the following example in this respect: Jack: Can I go out? Mum: Not can. Nowadays can is no longer regarded as incorrect. in fact. This use of can is relatively recent and it is a case when can encroaches upon may’s deontic territory. and future accomplishment (be able to). In all these examples. and involve either a person/an institution which creates permission. He can run faster next year (inappropriate).be able to is more common in writing than in speech. it has been possible to use can in the sense of permission.be able to is mandatory for past time reference to indicate the accomplishment of an event.there where the ability is with the subject rather than the circumstances. Jack: Ok. Can I borrow your car. If you don’t eat your meal. can tends to be avoided in formal and polite usage in both written and spoken English. may I go out? Mum: Sure you can. Many an English schoolchild has been rebuked for saying Can I? instead of May I?. PERMISSION/DEONTIC CAN Since about the 18th century. . . having the less specific meaning you have permission rather than I give you permission. may. This use of can may be extended from permission to strong recommendation as in: You can forget about your pocket money this week. can may relate to a specific future event. the differences between can and be able to are: .Applications Provided that the possibility is timeless. Well.in the present tense. On the other hand. Residents can use the car-park without a ticket. mine is broken. you can’t have any cake. Consider the following examples: You can go now. Their team can win the Cup next year (present ability to be actualized in the future). In conclusion. where may is felt to be the more respectable form. if he doesn’t like it he can always . the system of laws relative to which the statements are made represent the laws of society/social laws/institutional laws.2. 4. .

can refuses permission. as in You can NOT come. in the same manner as may not. Interrogation – in interrogative sentences. as you wish. there can be no future expression of permission. Past time and future time reference As a past form. circumstances are such as not to preclude the truth of the asserted sentence: There can be only one outcome of nuclear war. can is used to ask if the person addressed gives permission. please? 3.3. There is also a possibility of negating the situation i. He can’t be working at this late hour. Here the speaker is being ironical. POSSIBILITY/EPISTEMIC CAN Can is said to have a possibility interpretation when it indicates that.e.Applications lump it. *This can be a Toyota. according to the laws of reason/rational laws. then permission can is extended to mean quite the reverse of permission.e. offering somebody the choice of doing something that cannot be avoided. If the context is such as to give rise to a sarcastic attitude in the speaker. 4. but this can be ambiguous unless cleared up by the context: You can come or you can not come. being in some cases simply a matter of courtesy: Can I get you a drink? Can I ring you back? A further contextual extension of permission is one in which the person addressed should act in order for the event to take place: Can I have the salt. of giving permission not to act. Remark that mustn’t and shan’t negate the situation i. could may occur in reported speech since it is evident that one cannot give permission in relation to past events: He said I could leave the next day. Negation – when in the negative. Cigarettes can seriously damage your health. thank you very much.1. Palmer shows that we can indicate that permission will be given by using the verb to permit: I shall permit you to. Could in the following examples is not a past form but a more polite way of asking for or granting permission: Could we go on to talk about modernist novels? For similar reasons. approaching a brusque and somehow impolite command: You can leave me out of that silly list of yours. Remark that can would not be used to refer to a sentence in the present which is known to be untrue: This can be a Toyota. or of something no one would choose to do. Syntactic behaviour 1. . they lay an obligation that a situation will not take place. 2. but it is a Mercedes.

while in affirmative ones may is preferred: This may be true. The interpretation of possibility for can may be further extended in colloquial language to express a suggestion for future action: We can see about that tomorrow. she can’t be working at this hour. and you. There are however some syntactic markers present in the context which lead to one interpretation rather than the other: CAN in the ability interpretation requires a human or at least an animate subject. the possibility interpretation is also available in those contexts in which the subject is inanimate: Lightning can be dangerous (the possibility is stated positively). Can this be true? This can’t be true. Passive sentences constitute another context that favours the interpretation towards a possibility sense. Leech points out that “it is not always easy to distinguish between possibility can and ability can since ability implies possibility. The perfect infinitive form is another marker of epistemic interpretation: Can I have made such a mistake? He can have been hiding from you at that time. coercive shall. If they give you the sack. Palmer distinguishes between She can’t come (ability) and She can’t be coming (possibility).Applications Possibility can is more frequent in non-assertions i. With 2nd and 3rd person subjects. (a clear possibility interpretation due to the passive construction) Young children can play this game (ambiguous between a possibility and an ability interpretation) Constructions with impersonal subjects favour an epistemic reading for can: You can get quite lost in that metropolis.e. so. can sit right beside me. dear. It can be contrasted with the undemocratic. Lightning may be dangerous (or not) (both possibilities are open). handle it with care. Contrast the following sentences: This game can be played by young children. The progressive aspectual form is a marker for epistemic interpretation: She’s pulling your leg. negative and interrogative sentences. . The interpretation of circumstantial possibility is more appropriate if there is a clear indication of the circumstances in which an event is possible: You can only get a job if you’re good at it and you really want it. you can always come and work for me. it is familiar though tactful imperative: Jack and Jill. you can be standing over there. It’s such a fishy situation that you can be standing on a bomb.

Consider the sentences: Curiosity can kill. Past time reference – can + perfect infinitive. The duty of a president is to serve the people as best he can. the fact that a tendency in a person or thing is apt to manifest itself occasionally.1. however. The examples above can have indicative paraphrases with adverbials like at times. Note that the perfect infinitive does not generally co-occur with deontic or ability modals: He just can’t have made such a fool of himself. while others view it simply as a problem of past time reference: . None of them refers to a specific time. it can’t have been Jennifer (it is not possible that it was Jennifer). GENERAL NOTES ON THE SECONDARY MODALS As briefly mentioned before.Applications Syntactic behaviour 1. sometimes. some grammarians speak of a common hypothetical meaning shared by the secondary modals. indicating uncertainty. etc. 4. “permission” or “possibility” can be resolved by postulating an invariant core sense which may contextually interact with one or more of the three different systems of laws in which the circumstances are such as not to preclude an event (in the ability and permission interpretation) or the truth of a sentence (in the possibility interpretation). If you saw a woman in front of the house. habitual would: She can/will/would spend hours on the internet. They came back so quickly from their honeymoon that they can’t have been too happy there. bewilderment: Can it have been love that she was talking so excitedly about? Who can it be that bosses everybody around? 3.4.2. the above analysis shows that the question about whether particular instances of can should be interpreted as “ability”. others of a formal/tentative one. can suggests occasional behaviour. RECURRENCE CAN Can is often used to denote recurrence. Closest in meaning to the occasional can is characteristic will and customary. while may not negates the complement verb (=it is possible that… not…): He can’t be at home (=it is not possible that he is…). while will and would imply regular/habitual activity. She can be so obliging when she chooses to. Interrogation – the epistemic interpretation is frequent. He may not be at home (=it is possible that he is not…). Negation – can’t negates the modality (=it is not possible that). CONCLUSIONS In sum. Note that can also occurs in certain adverbial clauses of degree which have the value of a superlative: She is as happy as can be (= very happy). 4. 2.

might. 1979: 48). improbability which. “imaginative past”. he thinks. According to him. His position is that the secondary modals do not indicate past time. saying that “the secondary modals have a more tentative epistemic or deontic interpretation than their primary modal correlates” (1974: 127. Palmer characterizes the common.3. He also establishes a connection between this hypothetical sense and the formal. conditional clauses. this meaning extends over three different areas: hypothetical permission (could. past time reference. subsumes all these distinctions and points out the fact that the secondary modals presuppose the existence of a conditioning environment overtly marked. . must.R. should. would. “tentative”.ability could. Perkins objects to all the above mentioned proposals and offers a unifying denominator for “hypothetical”. in his opinion. can. unifying semantic feature of the secondary modals as tentativeness. indirect speech. might). which. unreality. shall. In his own words: Sometimes the condition will be realized formally as a conditional clause and sometimes it will be merely left implicit in the context of utterance. “formal/polite”. He could do it with the right moral support. she could certainly do it. Leech discusses the secondary modals as sharing a hypothetical meaning not present in the same degree in the primary ones. impossibility.Applications O. G. Could may have an ability interpretation if it is the system of natural laws that is taken into consideration and. F. such a condition must always be present in some way or another. instead. will. but no matter what its formal status might be. may. the circumstances are such as not to preclude the occurrence of the event: I couldn’t endure such behaviour.e. under the term “conditional”. ought to are identical in formal realization with the past tense counterparts of the primary modals. they indicate. If she tried harder. hypothetical tense which is thus devoid of temporal connotations” (1931: 112. constitute an “imaginative use of the past unreal. under a conditional reserve. polite use of the secondary modals (1971: 117). what he calls. Jespersen remarks that the modals could. the difference being one of conditionality: . Note that the present conditional of a putea is the usual form in Romanian for these weakened modalities. COULD The interpretations of could are essentially the same as those of can. might)/volition (would)/possibility (could. (1983: 51) 4. i. 114). M.

. . can may be substituted for could. He mightn’t have said that (It’s just possible that he did not say that) *Remark that the time sphere of epistemic could is present/extended present and future (polite suggestion for future action): There could be trouble at the Dinamo-Steaua match tomorrow. As already stated. A past time sphere and the rules of the sequence of tenses are the most common reasons for past-marking: He asked if he could use my phone. the negative inference being ‘but I don’t suppose I may’”. By extension. . How could she do/have done otherwise? In all the examples but the last one.epistemic could: You could not be put to prison for speaking against industry. You could answer these messages for me. could can be used to indicate habitual ability. as in: She made a compromise. Notice that could may report both can and could used in direct speech: He said I could go can be the reported form of both You can go and You could go. but you can be sent to an asylum for speaking like a fool. It is frequent in 1st person requests as: Could I see your driving license? I wonder if I could borrow some money? Could we have something to drink? Sometimes could is used instead of could+perfect infinitive for past time reference.Applications In all examples. Sometimes this negative assumption is overtly expressed in requests where the conditionality sense is explicit as in: I don’t suppose I could talk to her.permission could. could may be replaced by can with a difference that Leech characterizes in the following manner: “with could the speaker does not expect his plan to be granted. general possibility that resulted in a single occurrence. the difference residing in the conditionality sense of could. except in the negative form where couldn’t is an instance of external negation and mightn’t an instance of internal negation: He couldn’t have said that. could will be used out of habit of politeness even in cases in which the speaker does not expect his request to be complied with. He read the message but could not understand it. What could have turned him so angry? Leech remarks that it is difficult to see any difference in the use of could and might in the epistemic interpretation. when be able to is preferred in statements while the rule is more relaxed in the negative or with verbs of perception: I could stand up and tell them my opinion whenever I wanted. (It’s not possible that he said that).

Applications For past time reference.3. and it cannot be doubled by can/could since it would be pleonastic. ZERO CAN/COULD – when followed by verbs of physical/mental perception/activity or emotions. the result of an effort.ROUNDUP 1. SUBSTITUTES FOR CAN/COULD BE ABLE TO – its use is compulsory in the following cases: . CAN . frequent past action/state which no longer exists at the moment of speaking. he could see as far as the bridge (possibility.. Note that it almost never has progressive and past forms. no effort) MANAGE TO – is often used to stress more effectively than be able to the notion of overcome difficulty. 4. . It should be pointed out that such statements can be ambiguous lest cleared by larger contexts as to the type of counter-factuality and the time reference. complaint: They could have come when expected. It is more colloquial than be able to. CAN & COULD . participles). Remember that for past continuous ability only could is available: She could speak English and so was able to direct the stranger to his hotel. USED TO – is preferred to could/was able to for habitual.3.to avoid ambiguity for past time reference: He could have a picnic on Friday last (permission). they often lose the notional content becoming mere auxiliaries that should not be translated in Romanian: I can’t understand what you’re getting at. You could have told me in advance.to supply non-finite forms (infinitive.to form compound tenses. (Nu inteleg…) BE SUPPOSED TO – can be one of the most subtle ways of expressing interdiction in English: You are not supposed to enter this club if you are not its member.1.2. could+perfect infinitive is used: Could you have left your umbrella on the train? This construction can also lead to a “contrary-to-fact” interpretation or. while be able to is used to express an achievement. compare: He went up onto the roof and was able to see the lake in the distance with From the window of his motel room. 4. also. .

permission (= MAY): I am told you can tame any animal. logical deduction (=MAY). COULD . You can have met him some time ago. when…) and the future possibility depends on the ability.near future (as to the present. shall/will/’ll be able to are the only choices.future (as to the past – should/would be able to) I knew I should/would be able to meet them again. please? When can/could you bring the articles to be reviewed? They can/can’t come to the meeting tomorrow.present tense of modal can: ability – characteristic capacity. skill (exception – recurrence can = sometimes it can be/happen that…). not on the circumstances (the ability has not yet been acquired). polite. she’ll be able (not CAN) to pass the entrance examination.past tense of modal can only when it expresses: general past permission (informal alternative for may): She knew she could do whatever she liked. the speaker is more hesitant. say tomorrow? Can/Could you repeat. People can often be very unfeeling.unfulfilled past possibility: He said he couldn’t believe it when he was told the news. before going to work. isn’t he? They can’t have seen us in that pub. for ferm. contrary-to-factness): I don’t think he can have been so thoughtful. precise statement or categorical request. Don’t worry about her! When she has been coached long enough. Can he belong to our group and me not having met him yet! Why can’t you take your pills in time for a change? Can I use your phone? .past occasional ability: She could be a charming person. . . .past tense of modal can = can + perfect infinitive (true for any modal) (=past time + doubt. . there is an adverb of definite future time in the sentence (next week/month/year. diffident): Can/Could you come to/and have lunch with us. in spite of the moments when she lost her temper. Years ago. he could speak Arabic like an Arab. possibility. *Note that when the future moment is more remote. can they? .past general physical/intellectual ability: When young. he’s quite your age.Applications . she could jog four miles in the morning. 2. with could. . supposition. competence. uncertainty. can expressing permission: She’ll be able to speak (not CAN) several foreign languages when she has finished the interpreters’ course. The drug can be very effective in the treatment of pneumonia.

If you could draw. at five o’clock. There can be only one possible and terrifying outcome of this imminent war. . especially in indirect style): At his party. d) request. it can only express permission. I wish I could have had the chance to meet her. be able to is preferred: John was able to have a picnic on Friday last.could+perfect infinitive is used to express past ability not necessarily used. . .3. invitation. two days ago.3. or a possibility not put to the test: You could have finished the text but insisted to leave.conditional/subjunctive moods: I could have told that myself. you could have your name entered for the coming competition.if there is no indication in the context as to the meaning of could. EXERCISES – MEANINGS AND USES OF CAN/COULD I. He’s put on weight. last week.when there is a specific past time adverbial (yesterday. it is considered to be a conditional. so he could take more exercise.if there is no indication of mood.future in the past of modal can: They said they could help us move in on Monday. She knows I cannot refuse her so she always asks for favours. .present indicative (the sequence of tenses. .the pattern I can do it has the past form I was able to do it.could (not) for all negative/interrogative/negative-interrogative sentences with a past main verb.Applications . . . Identify the meanings of can in the following sentences. (could would signal permission) 4. *Note that: . c) permission / prohibition. and we did. You can’t take these books home with you. . I couldn’t do it covers both the affirmative and the negative and can be interpreted as both a negative conditional (future reference) and a past tense (past reference). he said we could make as much noise as we wanted to. suggestion (indirect speech acts). then. We could have offended them if we had omitted to send an invitation. offer. when she saw them). choose between: a) physical / mental ability. b) theoretical possibility. a larger context will clear the ambiguity. Can it be true? It (simply) can’t be true! What is done cannot be undone.

What had been done … be undone. they still wanted their son to always be honest and speak up his mind. I … see her standing there alone. Look! As I have told you I don’t know how many times. if you wish. but that did not necessarily mean that I … agree with him. He made me so mad that in the state I was. We can try to solve that now or we can put it off for later. When she saw the bus. Give reasons for using can/be able to in the following sentences. Make sentences to illustrate the following meanings and uses of can-could/be able to: present physical/mental ability. I’m sure he will … to provide quite decently for him and his family. they … hardly utter a word. she ran as fast as she …. You can’t have rejected such an attractive proposal if you know where your interest lies. However harsh they were. I … actually say things I knew I would regret later. III. who’s just got back from the States? What can she mean by that? Now I can understand what you mean to do. . I … do it on my own. and I … say that she felt embarrassed. He can’t not answer their polite request to forward the necessary details. Can I have a look at those photos? You can call on me every time you feel like it. … to say a word.Applications He can’t have meant to hurt her feelings as I know they are the best of friends. When you are in your sixties. he … stand up and tell them his opinion whenever he wanted to. present ability to be actualized in future. you can walk there. Who can be ringing so late at night? Can it be Jim. Can you pass me the sugar. I have no head for algebra. it takes you about five minutes. She can spend day after day in the library searching more data for her research paper. We can send you a confirmation of receipt. They were so shocked. I … understand what he meant. please? We already know she can be unfriendly when she wants to. past physical/mental ability. refer to the course whenever you need: If he still is the person I have known him to be. There was very little I … say or do about the whole situation. but … to get on. The bus station is not very far. You can certainly give me a ring back to tell me when you come by. you’ll … to say that you have had enough. I’m sorry I can’t help you with your mathematics. II.

Dacă te concediază. single potential (not realized) task. Translate into English and give reasons for your choices: Mă tem că nu înţeleg prea mult din ce spune. Sunt nou în oraş. Credeţi că vom putea termina suficient de repede pentru a trimite la timp documentele? Îmi amintesc că era o vreme când puteam petrece zile întregi fără să obosim. se ştie că poate fi foarte folositor în tratamentul pneumoniei. . recurrent. offers. single accomplished past occurrence. Ştii cât de greu poate fi la început. present/past occasional. strong recommendation. suggestions. nu se poate să fi refuzat administrarea lui. past possibility not put to the test/unfulfilled past possibility. physical/mental ability to be actualized at a specific future moment. Am putea să trimitem invitaţiile chiar săptămâna viitoare. not accomplished past event. Iarăşi vorbeşte la telefon! Cu cine o mai fi vorbind şi de data asta? Aş putea să pariez că e vreuna din prietenele ei cu care poate vorbi ore întregi fără să se plictisească. A spus că ar putea termina lucrarea de îndată ce intră în posesia tuturor articolelor de specialitate care s-au publicat în ultimii doi ani. IV. Din fericire. invitations.Applications accomplished task in the present. dar am putea continua mâine la aceeaşi oră. Nu se poate să fi venit la întrunire. description of present/past characteristic features of people/events. mi-am făcut mulţi prieteni de când m-am mutat în acest oraş. Spune că ar putea termina lucrarea de îndată ce intră în posesia tuturor articolelor de specialitate care s-au publicat în ultimii doi ani. ori nu sunt în stare să urmăresc nimic pentru că sunt obosit. timeless future physical/mental ability. habitual behaviour (the same as WILL/WOULD). Ştiu cât de jignită se poate simţi când nu este băgată în seamă. Ştiu cât de încredere poţi fi şi chiar aş dori să ni te poţi alătura. poţi oricând să vii la firma noastră. aş fi observat-o şi sigur m-aş fid us să vorbesc cu ea. asking for/granting present/past/future permission. you can…)/(…so that X can/could…). reproach for past actions. Putem să găzduim următoarea conferinţă la Galaţi. requests. recurrent past event. possible event/situation. În ce priveşte medicamentul acesta. ori vorbitorul nu şi-a structurat prea bine discursul. circumstantial possibility (if…. Să fie oare vârsta? Nu se poate! Am să fiu în stare să-l bat la table când voi avea mai multă experienţă. habitual. Credeţi că m-aţi putea ajuta să găsesc sediul Institutului de cercetări? Sugerăm să ne oprim deocamdată. vara viitoare.

poţi să-mi spui şi mie cine este. Ai fi putut să-mi spui şi mie despre broşurile pe care le-ai luat de la agenţia de voiaj. mi-aş fi făcut o idee mai clară despre condiţiile pe care le oferă. . Cercetătorii din domeniu s-au străduit să obţină un nou medicament care să fie cât mai eficient. Vezi silueta acea care se apropie? Dacă reuşeşti să recunoşti persoana. Poţi să crezi că parlamentul ar fi putut vota o asemenea lege care să afecteze interesele bolnavilor? Dacă au reuşit să-i convingă să intre în proiect. este pentru că ei chiar sunt în stare să-l ducă la bun sfârşit.Applications Nu-mi dau seama ce urmăreşte. astfel încât bolnavii să poată spera într-o însănătoşire rapidă. şi-a cerut scuze că n-a putut ajunge la timp din cauza unui blocaj în traffic. aş fi putut la fel de bine să mă lipsesc de ei. pentru că nu văd nimic cu ochelarii ăştia noi. s-ar putea să intenţioneze să înfiinţeze o societate de asigurări. Deşi poate fi nesuferit uneori.

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