Modals and Me

Posted: Aug 20, 2008 12:01 AM
Modals and Me

It is a regular source of amazement, the things people will be amazed by.

For example, it was our privilege the other day to publish a letter to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette from one of our valued correspondents. The letter was a model of brevity. It was also a thorough provocation to any defender of the mother tongue in these parts, aka Suthuhn.

To quote the letter, in toto:

"I was utterly amazed to see Œthe board might could use a little guidance' in a recent editorial. Might could use? What English grammar book did that come from? Shame on you. Your Arkie background is showing."

Ooo-wee. My reactions came fast and a little furious. First came a not very nice question: "You're not from around here, are you, friend?"

Second, I've never been ashamed of showing my Arkie background. I do, after all, work for Arkansas' statewide newspaper. My problem has been the opposite: trying to control my hair-trigger pride in Arkansas, which used to be known as the Wonder State long before we changed our license plates to read The Natural State.

Third and more to the point, when we asserted that a public board "might could use a little guidance," we did so - if you'll forgive my lapsing into English Teacher Mode - to modify the more definite, "could use a little guidance." There's a slight but significant difference in the two grammatical constructions for those who take pains with their language. At the time this board seemed to be on its way to realizing and correcting its mistakes, but we couldn't be sure. Hence, it might could have used some guidance.

Think about it. Suppose you're asking some old boy to undertake a job for you, like digging a drainage ditch or putting a new clutch in your old rattletrap. If he says, "I could do it," you've probably got yourself a deal. On the other hand, if his response is, "I might could do it," the negotiations have just gotten a mite more complex.

One of the great advantages of a regional dialect is that it's rooted in real life and real distinctions, like the one between "I could" and "I might could," each with a different degree of probability. To sacrifice such shades of meaning for no better reason than a false respectability is to lose sight of what language ought to be about: conveying meaning precisely, even about imprecision.

As for what grammar book I learned this construction from, the answer is: none. I picked it up by ear, by experience, from life, which can be even more instructive than a formal text. And usually is.

Most people, at least in these latitudes, will instinctively understand the difference between "I could" and the less certain "I might could," or even the upbeat "I just might could," which has a ring of positive acquiescence to it. But there's usually no need to articulate these linguistic distinctions - except of course to folks who, as they say in Charleston, come from off.

But if our critic must have some official authority for "might could," which in grammatical circles is known as a double modal, he could consult any authoritative guide to English usage, including Southern regional usage. The experts may refer to the double modal as informal or conversational, but that scarcely makes it less useful. It's certainly more nuanced.

To quote one linguist, "modal forms such as 'could' and 'should' are ambiguous in Modern English, as they have both an indicative and a subjunctive sense. The use of double modals in Southern American English fills a gap in Standard English grammar, namely the loss of inflectional distinction in English between indicative and subjunctive modals. Dialect or regional forms are often more progressive in gap-filling than is a standard language." Which I hope is a sufficiently technical explanation to appease our critic.

Perhaps the most common example of the greater precision of Suthuhn as opposed to Standard American Usage is the pronoun y'all, the second person plural. The less discerning standard usage has only you for both plural and singular. Talk about a linguistic gap that needs filling.

I rest my case, y'all.

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