Multiplying Modals

My favorite part of speech is the group of little guys known as modal auxiliaries or informally, modals. There are nine of them:

can, could

may, might

will, would

shall, should


(There are some other quasi-modals like had to, used to, and ought to, but those nine are the hard core.)

Modals are a kind of verb, but that’s like saying a rose is a kind of flower. Modals are special.

What makes them special is:

—They are short.

—They are always auxiliaries, always helping other verbs.

—They are always first in line in the verb phrase, e.g.: “You might have been being misunderstood.”

—They are unchanging in tense and aspect: no past tense or past participle ending with ed, no present participle ending with ing.

—They are unchanging also with regard to singular and plural subjects. Where other verbs add s for third-person-singular present tense, modals do not.

This makes modals a writer’s pals in cases where it’s hard to decide whether a subject is singular or not. Should you say “None of these answers satisfies her” or “None of these answers satisfy her”? Add a modal helper and you won’t have to look up the answer in a grammar book: “None of these answers will satisfy her.”

—And finally, modals are also writers’ pals because they are moody. That’s what “modal” means, expressing a mood. Take a plain declarative sentence like “This is dangerous” and add your choice of a modal to capture the nuance you want: can be dangerous, could be dangerous, may be dangerous, might be dangerous. …

There is a limit to moodiness, though. From the grammar books we learn that just one modal is allowed per main verb. Wouldn’t it be great if we could express a complex mood with two or three of them?

Well, wonder of wonders, that might could come to pass. For it happens that in the Southern states of the United States, and also in parts of Scotland, England, Ireland, and the Caribbean, people do use multiple modals.

And this very day, February 1, 2012, a Web site is scheduled to go public that demonstrates and celebrates this fact. It’s MultiMo: The Database of Multiple Modals: A New Resource for Researchers. Bookmark this address:

Developed at the University of South Carolina by Michael Montgomery, an expert on Southern and Appalachian English, with Paul Reed, this database includes more than 1,500 double or even triple modals collected from actual use. Here’s a sample:

“You may shouldn’t eat that many peanuts, cause folks have told me they’re not actual good for you.” For every entry there is information about the context. In this case, it was spoken by a 60-year-old white woman, a mother to her son, in North or South Carolina.

“I think probably the only thing we may would have would be napkins,” says a woman in South Carolina.

Could we might plan a study session?” asks a young woman in her 20s.

“I might could feel worse but I’m damned if I know how,” says a middle-aged man to a woman.

There are literary examples too, including one from Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge: “‘I reckon it might could,’ the woman with the protruding teeth said, ‘but I know for a fact my apartment couldn’t get no hotter.’”

Among the many double modals in the database, there are also a very few triple modals, including this one:

“It’s a long way and he might will can’t come, but I’m gonna ask,” says a 50-year-old white woman, an aunt to her niece, in North or South Carolina.

Although it is entertaining, the Web site is designed for serious research. It includes an overview essay, a bibliography, and selected commentary on multiple modals. It also invites you to contribute further examples. You might can should take a look!

Return to Top