Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Wide-Scoping Modals

Posted by Neal on May 7, 2008

Two posts ago, I was talking about sentences like They must have loosened the pins and {he didn’t notice / him not have noticed}. Based on just examples with epistemic modals, the interim conclusion I reached was:

It looks like the pattern here is actually that the second clause must have tense, but person/number marking is optional.

Commentator Ellen K. added that she preferred the phrasing They must have loosened the pins and he not have noticed, so this is another possibility to consider. However, it is still consistent with the hypothesis that person/number marking is optional; the only detail is whether the no-person/no-number verb requires a nominative subject or not. For now, I’m going to avoid this third phrasing option, and just see what patterns there are with the phrasings I’ve been working with. The grammaticality judgments I’ll be giving are mine alone; however, my own intuitions have probably been compromised by thinking about these sentences and saying them to myself so much. I welcome your grammaticality judgments.

So, now I’ll look at some sample sentences with deontic modals, i.e. those that express obligation or permission. I’ll start with those expressing obligation, and go ahead and include the quasi-modal have to with them:

Deontic modals: requirement or obligation


  • PRESENT TIME

    1. You must steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    2. You have to steal the medallion and {?they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    3. You should steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    4. You ought to steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / ?them not see you}.
  • PAST TIME

    1. You had to steal the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / them not see you}.
    2. You should have stolen the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / *them not see you / them not have seen you}.
    3. You ought to have stolen the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / ?them not see you / them not have seen you}.

With obligation deontic modals, then, it looks like the second clause again must have tense: You can see this in the past-time examples where them not see you is ungrammatical. Now, however, person/number marking is not optional; it’s forbidden. As for why the ought example sounds bad either way, I don’t know.

I’m not done with these wide-scoping modals yet. Soon I’ll look at dynamic modals (those that talk about ability or willingness), and I want to take a closer look at negations that scope over an entire coordination, too.

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2 Responses to “More Wide-Scoping Modals”

  1. Alixtii said

    For what it’s worth, I definitely agree with Ellen K.–I was thinking that as I read your first post and thought about bringing it up, but then I began to trip over my intuitions because, like Ellen K., I’m not sure I find the versions with subjective pronounds completely grammatical. They’re just, I don’t know, closer. Better, in any case.

  2. Ran said

    Whereas for the epistemic modals a lot of these sentences sound fine to me, with the deontic modals they sound wrong — or they sound right, but give me the wrong interpretation (either I misinterpret the modal as epistemic, or I misinterpret the obligation as being on both subjects’ referents).

    Off-topic: I came across a (to-me interesting example of grammatical ambiguity the other day. A news-person on the radio said, “P.E.I. is what Canadians call Prince Edward Island,” which I heard as “P.E.I. is what (=the thing/place that) Canadians call ‘Prince Edward Island.'” It took me a second to realize that the news-person had meant, “‘P.E.I.’ is what (=the name by which) Canadians call Prince Edward Island.” English doesn’t have too many verbs that link two object complements (though it does have a few: “call,” “term,” “name,” “label,” “find,” “consider,” …), so this kind of ambiguity doesn’t come up very often. My sense is that the reading he intended is only possible when the second complement (the term) has recently been mentioned, and this construction is by way of explaining it. (That was indeed the case here.) So, I think “A moron is what I found him” only makes sense as a response to, say, “Did you say something about a moron?” (well, unless it’s supposed to mean “I found a moron for him”).

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