Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Modal Miscommunication

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2015

I got a Facebook message from someone who had friended me based on my linguistical online presence. From his profile, he seems to be Middle Eastern. He was asking about graduate linguistic programs in the United States, and whether I knew of professors who had similar research interests to his. Trying to be helpful, I asked about his research interests, then mentioned a few of the professors at Ohio State, and wrote:

I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

I saw later that the Facebook friend had responded. I was startled to see that he was thanking me for being willing to do that for him.

Whoa! I wanted to be helpful, but not that helpful! At least, not for someone that I only know through Facebook. Where did he get the idea I was offering to actually craft an email for him? I looked again at my previous message, and then wrote back:

I’m sorry, I miscommunicated. When I wrote “I would email them”, I was using an implicit conditional sentence, in which I left an “if” clause unsaid. If I had written it fully, it would have gone “If I were in your situation, I would email them.” This is a way of making a suggestion or giving advice, but it was not an offer to email these professors for you. I think an email coming directly from you would be better, although if you wish, you can mention my name (for example, “Neal Whitman recommended that I …”).

By the way, to make an offer, I would probably write “I COULD email them” (to mean “I could email them if you wanted me to do so”), or “I CAN email them” (to make the same offer, but more emphatically), or “I WILL email them” (to indicate that I intend to do it without waiting for you to accept my offer).

I know that it’s often tough for English-language learners to get a grip on all the shades of meaning for all the modal verbs in their different tenses. If any of you have learned both English and some other language that’s not your native language, what do you think? Are English modal verbs (and quasi-modals like ought to and have to) harder to learn than similar verbs in other languages?

7 Responses to “Modal Miscommunication”

  1. Christina said

    In my understanding, the cause of confusion was the change of subjects among sentences. You say that you left out an implicit conditional clause, but there is an explicit one after the main clause. In your text, “I would check (…) and email them IF you’re (…)”. That may be why he interpreted that as an offer for help.
    You, perhaps did not notified this possible cause because the correlation between the sentences sound weird. The question about not being a native speaker is not only about understanding the proper grammar, but filling in the gaps in casual speech.
    As I am not a native speaker, I parsed the sentences differently. Since “I would” cannot correlate with “you’re” and I looked for a verb in the present to pair with the if clause. And I found one: “email”—as an imperative. The I reread the sentence and understood that the sentence in the conditional mood was an advice, “email” was an imperative and the if clause correlated with that clause with the verb in the imperative.
    That, however is just me. I am likely to make that sort mistakenly assumption about sentences in my own language.

    • Neal said

      You’re right: Even when I was thinking about understood conditionals, I completely overlooked the explicitly stated conditional in my utterance! Now it does sound more like an offer, from the point of view of someone who’s absorbing the meaning just by composing the words, instead of taking it from cultural experience.

  2. Gary said

    Japanese?

  3. tmmcfrance said

    Wouldn’t it have been more clear if you had written. You ought to write to him….? It’s true that the models are tricky little monkeys to understand and use – however, for language learners who want to progress they have to be dealt with at some time and I call them the ‘quicksand’ of English.

  4. The only two languages I’ve really studied, French and German, aren’t too different from English. The trickiest part is trying to remember how the modals for obligation or probability map to the ones in English. In German, for example, muss nicht doesn’t mean “must not” but rather “don’t have to”. In French, devoir can correspond to half a dozen different modals or quasi-modals depending on the tense, mood, and context.

  5. dainichi said

    I understood your sentence and found it only mildly ungrammatical, although strictly speaking, it should probably be:

    I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if I were interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

    For some reason, if the conditional comes first in your sentence, I find it even less ungrammatical:

    If you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State, I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them.

    I’m not a native speaker, so I don’t count, but in my native Danish, I think the same kind of thing occurs. It seems that “I would check” can more or less be replaced with “I recommend checking” regardless of the surrounding context.

    I have a slightly different theory about why your friend misunderstood your sentence. I have noticed quite a few times that non-native English speakers (I think mainly Indians, but I’m not sure) write/say “would” when they obviously mean “will”. I think I read somewhere that “will” is considered too direct, but I can’t find it now, so I could be dreaming that up completely.

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