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.