Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Modals, Negation, and Caviar and Beans

Posted by Neal on May 1, 2008

I read in Dear Abby earlier this week about a nephew who was given some money to treat his grandparents to dinner, but for unknown reasons, did not do so. The current Abby responded in his defense:

He might have offered, and the offer was declined.

It’s another case of a modal that is syntactically part of just one clause (He might have offered), but semantically spreads its hypotheticality over two coordinated clauses (the second one being the offer was declined). The last example of something like this that I wrote about was

They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it.

Recently I’ve been reading a couple of papers on this topic, published in the 1980s by Muffy Siegel. (Hey, is that the same Muffy Siegel who got so much publicity a few years ago on her study of the word like? Yes, it is.) However, her sentences are a little bit different. Here are a couple of them (from “Compositionality, case, and the scope of auxiliaries”, 1987, Linguistics and Philosophy 10.53-75):

Ward can’t eat caviar and his guest eat dried beans.
Ward can’t go out drinking and his wife stay home with the baby.
For once, the hero didn’t end up with the beautiful woman and the villain end up with only his horse.

Her first two examples involve a modal (can’t), so they’re similar to my examples in that regard. Actually, it’s a modal plus a negation. The last one involves just negation, and I’ve collected a few of those too:

I nodded so hard I’m surprised my neck didn’t snap and my head fall to the floor.
I hope she didn’t die and nobody told me.

The main difference between Siegel’s examples and most of mine are that the second clauses in her examples all lack tense. It’s his guest eat, his wife stay and the villain end up, and not his guest eats, his wife stays and the villain ends up. Most of my examples, OTOH, have tensed second clauses: the offer was declined, Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice, nobody told me. The exception is the tenseless my head fall off.

Siegel’s analysis is good, but it depends on these clauses not having tense. She proposes that tenseless sentences can be freely generated in English, but when there’s no context providing the tense information, they have limited uses, such as expressing disbelief or scorn. (What, me worry? Her go out with him?!) For an example of a context that does provide tense information, there are perception verbs, which can take tenseless clauses as complements: I saw him do it. The next step in Siegel’s analysis is the observation that you can even coordinate tenseless sentences: Ward eat caviar and his guest eat dried beans?! All that remains is to assign the modal a semantics that applies to entire propositions (not just predicates), and a syntactic category that allows it to be shoehorned in just past the first subject, regardless of whether the clause is coordinated with another one or not. And then there are the details of making sure this first subject is in the nominative case, so you don’t end up with sentences like *Me can’t go and you not come with me!

So Siegel’s analysis won’t cover examples like mine, which have tensed second clauses. The question now is: Should it? Do you believe that her examples and mine are examples of the same kind of phenomenon, and should therefore be accounted for in a single analysis? Or does their superficial similarity conceal a deeper difference? Right now I’m playing around with different choices of modals and tenses, seeing which ones require the second clause to have tense, which ones allow it, and which ones forbid it. Here’s what I have so far:

First, let’s try out some epistemic modals — i.e. modals that let you express a conclusion you’ve made based on whatever facts or evidence you have.

Epistemic modals


  • PRESENT TIME

    1. She must be in love with him and {he doesn’t know it / him not know it}.
    2. She might be in love with him and {he doesn’t know it / him not know it}.
    3. She could be in love with him and {he doesn’t know it / him not know it}.
    4. She may be in love with him and {he doesn’t know it / him not know it}.
  • PAST TIME

    1. She must have been in love with him and {he didn’t know it / *him not know it / him not have known it}.
    2. She might have been in love with him and {he didn’t know it / *him not know it / him not have known it}.
    3. She could have been in love with him and {he didn’t know it / *him not know it / him not have known it}.
    4. She may have been in love with him and {he didn’t know it / *him not know it / him not have known it}.

So far, it looks like the epistemic modal can scope over both clauses, but it’s not a matter of whether the second clause is tensed or tenseless. The tensed version for the past time examples, he didn’t know it, is OK, but what of the other two? Him not know it doesn’t have tense, and it sounds bad. And what about him not have known it? That does have tense: the auxiliary have gives us the present perfect tense. Clearly, though, him not have known it cannot stand as a sentence on its own; in that regard it’s like the tenseless him not know in the present time examples. What is it missing, if not tense? It’s missing person/number marking; that is, the third-person singular he/she/it -s ending. It looks like the pattern here is actually that the second clause must have tense, but person/number marking is optional. The present time examples with him not know (as well as the earlier examples) are consistent with this rule because you can know just as easily as a present-tense form without person/number marking as a tenseless base form.

Next I’ll see how this pattern holds up when I try some deontic modals (modals that express obligation or permission) and some dynamic modals (ones that say something about their subject’s ability or desire). But I think I’ll leave those for the next post, since this one is getting kind of long, and I need to think about how I construct my examples.

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6 Responses to “Modals, Negation, and Caviar and Beans”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I just said a sentence of this sort:

    “They may have and I didn’t notice.”

  2. Ellen K. said

    I think “he not know it” sounds much better than “him not know it”. I notice this differs from earlier examples in the post in having a pronoun, and thus case choice (subject vs object) being an additional factor, where it isn’t with a general noun. You might have the opposite preference. But still seems worth noted.

    I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it (either in present or past) in those examples even with that change, but it does seem a little more natural to me that way.

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Rachel and Ellen, for your input. I chose the sentences with pronouns precisely so I could see which case the subjects had to be. And now I know that the combination of subjective case with nonfinite verb is possible in at least one person’s grammar.

  4. Ellen K. said

    I’m confused. If that’s why you chose sentences with pronouns, I don’t see why then you only use object pronouns, and not subject pronouns. Either I’m missing something, or you didn’t understand what I meant to convey.

  5. Neal said

    Ellen: At first I had sentences like, “…and John doesn’t know it / and John not know it.” But I couldn’t tell if I was using a subjective or objective form for John since they’re the same. So I used a pronoun, and found that in my easiest-to-judge examples, the finite clauses demanded subjective forms, and the nonfinite clauses, objective. I just continued that pattern in constructing new examples (two versions: finite with subjective, nonfinite with objective), and didn’t seriously consider the option of subjective pronouns with a nonfinite clause until you brought your intuitions to bear.

  6. [...] Comments Neal on Modals, Negation, and Caviar and BeansEllen K. on Modals, Negation, and Caviar and BeansIngeborg S. Nordén on Outrageous, [...]

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