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An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb: Modal Verbs

Dieter Mindt (1995)
Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag
Pp. 192
ISBN 3-464-00649-2
DM 39.80

What are the possible meanings of the modal auxiliary may, and what is the relative frequency of these uses? Which of the modals is used most often to express permission? What are the most frequent modal verbs? If you want the answers to these and similar questions, then this is the book for you. Dieter Mindt (together with his large team of research assistants) is one of a new breed of grammarians who are basing their investigations of the English language not on subjective introspection but on machine-readable corpora of natural language. As he says in the introduction: "This grammar uses a new approach to English. It is based on authentic English. There has been no borrowing from previous grammars" (p. 6). It should be pointed out, however, that Mindt makes no attempt to explain what he understands by the term "authentic language." Apparently he considers anything spoken or written by a native speaker to be authentic. Unfortunately he neglects to specify his sources, indicating only that he "had access to more than 80 million words of English" (p. 6) and that his investigation is "primarily based on fictional texts of British English" (p. 7). This gives rise to a major objection to Mindt's claim to authenticity, given the fact that there is a growing awareness among linguists that real people do not speak like characters in books, plays and films. In the same way as Mindt would argue that previous grammarians have merely described their subjective perceptions of language, it must be argued that the subjective restructuring of language by authors in works of literature cannot constitute a true representation of authentic English. It may be the fact that there is a certain degree of correlation between natural language and some types of literature, but a lot more research would have to be done in this area before it could be claimed that it is sufficient to base a grammar of English on fictional texts alone. In spite of these reservations, An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb: Modal Verbs is an immensely valuable book, not only because of the interesting facts and figures it contains but also because of the systematic methodology employed, something which has been sadly lacking in most grammar books in the past.

The book begins with a break-down of the components of the verb phrase and develops "verbal triangles" to illustrate the possible interconnections of the components with respect to the position and role of modal verbs in English. These triangles take the form of three-dimensional diagrams reminiscent of models of atomic structures. An example can be seen at [-1-] < . These 3-D models, heralded in the blurb at the above-mentioned website as "an unprecedented description of the English verb phrase," are certainly a novel approach, but their pedagogical value and necessity are not immediately apparent.

The next section is devoted to the syntax of the verb and consists of a very thorough and systematic classification of the English verb form into main verbs, auxiliaries, modals and catenative (from the Latin meaning chain) verbs. Do is classified in a category of its own. Mindt describes in great detail the possible syntactic combinations of these verb classes and outlines how many common verbs belong to more than one of the five main classes. Have, for example, can occur in four different categories (p. 40): a) as a main verb: she has a jealous husband; b) as a catenative verb: one has to go back to the beginning; c) as an auxiliary: they have struck a bargain; and d) as a modal: we have got to be realists. At first glance it might seem illogical to classify have to and have got to in two different groups, but it is in keeping with Mindt's syntactic definition of a modal: "a modal is never preceded by another modal, by auxiliaries or by catenative verbs" (p. 31). This formal definition leads to logical inconsistencies: used to is classified as a modal, didn't use to is not and is therefore ignored. A more flexible and functional approach might have been more helpful in such cases.

Modal meaning is viewed from two perspectives: the first perspective looks at speech intentional aspects, listing 17 types of modal meaning (p. 45) and outlining which modals can convey which speech intention. The other perspective starts from the individual modals and the different speech intentions each can express. Each modal is described according to a consistent structural framework:

  1. essentials: gives a brief account of the most important facts concerning forms and meanings;
  2. prototypes: a combination of formal, semantic, and syntactic features which occur most frequently in combination; and
  3. details: consisting of statistics on forms, meanings and contexts.

The final sections contain some very interesting statistics and graphs showing the distribution of modal and temporal meaning and the contexts in which modals are used. What do these statistics tell us about the use (and the teaching) of the English language? Not a lot, critics of corpus-based linguistics will reply. But surely the fact that 97% of all may occurrences express possibility and only 3% permission would indicate that we should devote more time to the former than is usually the case in current textbooks. Statistics are not everything but they can be useful when making decisions involving priority. [-2-]

The book contains several inconsistencies and illogicalities. Here are a few:

  1. Would is described as expressing habit in the past: "day after day my grandmother would pile the table with good food" and state in the past: "these cottages would be fairly primitive" (p. 68). Obviously the use of would is the same in each case; two separate categories are unwarranted. The difference is expressed by the main verb, not by the modal.
  2. One of the main problems in any semantic analysis is the question of interpretation, and it is sometimes very difficult to isolate the exact meaning of a modal. To take an example: "I should tell my parents first." Does should indicate obligation or advisability? Hard to tell, perhaps, but it is strange that in Mindt's book, obligation is not even listed as a possible meaning of should at all, whereas it is given as the main meaning for ought to.
  3. Another oddity is the fact that oughta and gotta are presented as entirely separate forms from ought to and got to, although it is obviously just a question of pronunciation.
  4. A description of be supposed to (which Mindt would presumably call a catenative adjective construction with modal meaning) would have been very interesting, but unfortunately no mention is made of this pedagogically difficult modal.

All in all, An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb: Modal Verbs is a highly recommendable piece of research which represents an attempt to put the study of grammar on a more objective footing. It will prove an excellent resource book for English teachers and university students and is a must for anyone writing a textbook or grammar of English. It will certainly help to dispel a few myths about the modal auxiliaries.

End Note:

May expresses possibility/high probability (97%) and permission (3%). The modals used to express permission are can (58%), may (16%), could (13%), and might (13%). The three most frequent modals are would (c. 28% of all modal occurrences), could (c. 17%), and will (c. 17%). [-3-]

Esslingen University of Technology, Germany