Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It Might Be Modal Subordination and I Never Realized It

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2006

Doug and I have now finished the Great Brain series (well, except for that posthumously published eight volume, which I don’t really count). Now we’re reading Brave Buffalo Fighter, another book by John D. Fitzgerald, which I never came across as a kid. In one chapter, the tailgate on a family’s covered wagon comes open as they’re going up a riverbank, spilling all their supplies. The narrator’s brother Jerry blames the kids:

“They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it,” Jerry said.

In Jerry’s sentence, the epistemic modal must introduces his idea of what happened: The kids loosened the hooks on the tailgate. The second clause of Jerry’s sentence doesn’t have a must. But it’s talking about Mr. Cleaver not noticing that the hooks were loose, so Jerry is clearly still talking about what he thinks happened. So even though the modal is embedded in just one of the coordinated clauses, it needs to have scope over both of them, as if Jerry had said, “It must be the case that (a) the kids loosened the hooks and (b) Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it.”

I’m adding this coordination to the list of other coordinations in which something embedded in one coordinate scopes over both, written about most recently in this post, which includes a coordination from the Great Brain series I was just mentioning. The earlier examples mostly involve negation or question syntax, but a couple of them, like the current one, involve a modal. And as I looked at the examples with modals, I remembered that there’s a name for when the hypothetical-ness (hypotheticality?) introduced by a modal just keeps on going: It’s called modal subordination.

Modal subordination refers to what’s going on in this old joke:

Wife: If I died, would you remarry?
Husband: Well, you’d be gone, so, yeah, I suppose eventually I would.
Wife: Would you have her move into our house?
Husband: There wouldn’t be any sense in buying a new home, so yes I guess so.
Wife: Would you let her sleep in our bed?
Husband: Well, there wouldn’t be any sense in buying a new bed, so yeah, I guess I’d let her sleep in our bed.

The hypothetical situation introduced with If I died persists through the subsequent discourse. The subsequent woulds utttered by the husband and the wife don’t introduce other hypothetical situations; they just continue the one under discussion, and they also allow the husband and the wife to continually refer back to the hypothetical new wife. Without a would (or some other modal), it sounds funny to refer back to something that exists only in the hypothetical situation, as we can see when we get to the punch line:

Wife: Would you let her use my golf clubs?
Husband: Heck, no, she’s left handed!

I wondered if my examples of non-parallel coordination involving modals could be analyzed in the same way as other modal subordination. Doing a search on “coordination” and “modal subordination” together, I found a paper by Anette Frank that makes just such an analysis. Except that it’s not exactly about modal subordination. Frank’s paper extends the idea of modal subordination to other discourse-related functions, namely, whether something is a topic, or focused, or the grammatical subject. Doing so allows her to account for how Santa can be the subject of both verb phrases in Down will come Santa and fill the stockings. She doesn’t discuss non-parallel coordinations involving actual modals, like my examples, but they would certainly be covered under the analysis she presents.

My question at this point is: Now that the idea of modal subordination has been expanded to become “discourse subordination,” can it be extended even farther to cover negation and questions, like my earlier examples? They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it looks a lot like modal subordination, but it also looks a lot like I hope she didn’t die and nobody told me and Do you want to buy a home but you can’t afford a down payment?, so I’d expect a strong analysis of one to apply to the others as well.

5 Responses to “It Might Be Modal Subordination and I Never Realized It”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I caught a similar “must have” example in something I wrote the other day:

    “Dad’s area of math was algebraic topology, and I suppose the one aspect of topology that he must have explained to me and I understood was that you could have a shape that had an inside and an outside but if it was complicated and squiggly enough it could be hard to know at a glance what was inside and what was outside.”

    It is a bit of a run-on sentence, and I’ve italicised the relevant part.

    And this that I came across today looks like a negation-scoping case (I’ve decapitalized it from being in all-caps):
    “Please tell me you weren’t in Australia and I didn’t know”

    Please tell me it’s not the case that [you were in Australia and I didn’t know]

  2. Neal said

    Excellent! Thanks for the examples!

  3. […] It’s OK to say Laborers lived in these houses during the summer … but returned to live on the main farm during the winter. It’s just an ordinary coordination of two clauses. But what if you want to turn this into a relative clause by pulling out these houses? That’s what Diamond did, and now there’s a problem. It’s clear that where takes scope over both verb phrases (lived…, returned…), since there’s only one subject (laborers) for the both of them, and where takes scope over that. But now it doesn’t make sense anymore; houses where laborers returned to live on the main farm is a contradiction. At least, it shouldn’t make sense, but I understood it just fine. I think this is another instance of something that might be modal subordination but I never realized it, and more specifically, one like Geoff Pullum’s non-parallel relative clause. […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. I was googling, looking for recent work and older examples on modal subordination to use in a class, and found this blog, which cites some of my own older work :-).
    Yes, in my opinion, modal subordination is just a special instance of a broader phenomenon of “discourse subordination”.

    There are classical examples for negation creating a counterfactual subordination context. “I don’t have a microwave oven. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Here, negation of the second sentence sort of carries on the counterfactual context. Most often, in modal contexts, as in your examples above, it is subjunctive mood. I have looked at this in some detail in past work.

    It’s interesting to see the examples involving coordination. I first looked at modal subordination, and years later on a problem in coordination, that seeme related. I never thought about looking for modal coordination contexts in coordinations.

    In my view, this is clearly related to modal subordination:

    “They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it,” Jerry said.

    In which ways it might differ, I’ll have to think about.
    I’ll come by again, as soon as I find more time.

    Great site!

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