I Might Could Have Something to Say About This

I was trying to write a sentence containing a double modal today, but unfortunately I’ve had pretty much zero exposure to this dialect feature. So of course I turn to the Internet to get a sense of its usage from real-world samples and I was pretty surprised by what I found. There are scads of blogs and forum postings about this structure and people get pretty fired up over it. So I took a moment to write up my sentence and proceeded to get sucked into reading people’s opinions on double modals.

Here are some things I noticed.

It provided some good insight into how people understand the word grammatical. Here are some of the lines of thinking I saw provided by nonlinguists, language lovers and linguists, writers, etc. regarding defining grammaticality.

  • Double modals are not valid grammatical constructions because they violate some rule of English grammar.
  • Double modals can be idiomatic but that doesn’t make them grammatical.
  • Systematic, prevalent usage does not make double modals grammatical.
  • Just because double modals are used in other languages does not make them grammatically acceptable in English.

There were many comments that suggested that double modals may be grammatically sound structures in certain dialects of English, but that it’s wrong or not a wise idea to use nonstandard dialects in the first place.

  • Although a lot of people may use double modals, they shouldn’t because they’ll probably be judged for it.
  • It’s not necessary to use a double modal like “might could” when you can just say the more acceptable “might be able to”.
  • Even though double modals are fine to use in dialects of English, there’s a reason why they’re not used in Standard English.

Finally, and to me most fascinating, people who do use double modals are typically proud of it, their dialect, and their linguistic heritage. Here are some of the ideas I found shared.

  • Using double modals allows for richer expression of nuanced meaning.
  • Some users of double modals argued that their ability to switch between standard and nonstandard English is an asset.
  • There was strong indication that users of double modals felt a lot of solidarity with others sharing their dialect.

I was shocked to see that double modals catalyze such great division among people. Either you’re a double-modaler or you’re not! And it’s apparently a big deal. Though there is probably a lot at play here, I want to point out one reason for this that I perceive as particularly salient. There is apparently a geographic delineation that separates those who use double modals from those who don’t. This makes the difference physically real and means that people like me (I’m from Minnesota) will rarely if ever hear this variant. To demonstrate this, I used SeeTweet to plot the geographic distribution of “might could” using data from Twitter.

As you can see, “might could” is pretty well restricted to the South and Appalachia. I’ll point out that the red dot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin is actually me tweeting about double modals earlier today. Funnily, the tweet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin is someone complaining about double modals as a syntactic abomination. And the tweet from Toronto is actually an instance of “might/could”.

Knowing that those who do use double modals see them as a means to demonstrating their social  and regional allegiances (e.g., I am from North Carolina and we use double modals!), it’s possible to argue that this is an example of in- versus out-group bias. For those who use double modals, it’s a point of solidarity. For those who do not, it’s a tool for identifying an out-group member. As I saw some people admitting, you are likely to be subject to discrimination for using a nonstandard dialect. All very interesting to me! As someone who grew up in southern Minnesota, I’m proud to say “duck, duck, gray duck” instead of “duck, duck, goose”! But I’ve also been criticized for this quirk by non-gray-duckers. Ridiculous example, I know.

And of course, this just reaffirms for me why it’s important to study folk perceptions of sociolinguistic variation and even linguistic principles like grammaticality. I’ve made it obvious before already, but I’ll say again that I love to see that people are talking about language and can be at times very opinionated. However, I would love more to see this energy translated into curiosity and appreciation. A huge part of this will be understanding things like language as a social identity and in-/out-group bias.

Megan L. Risdal

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8 Comments

Filed under Linguistics

8 responses to “I Might Could Have Something to Say About This

  1. Cameron

    I’m from Alabama and I use “might could.” I never really thought about it until I moved to Michigan. It’s funny, I don’t have a thick accent and I can drop southernisms easily when I’m in the company of non-Southerners but that one is really hard. It’s like trying to say the alphabet backwards, you could do it but it’s pretty awkward.

  2. Mar Rojo

    “Double modals” fascinate me, even though I’m not a double-modaler.
    Have you read this paper?

    Volitional modality in the double-modal construction in Southern US English. By Cynthia Kilpatrick and Chris Barker, UCSD.

    It’s well worth it.

  3. Okay, I was going to comment on the linguistics in this post (and I will in a second) but first I have to tell you that one of my friends from college is from Minnesota (I’m from Long Island, NY, and went to college in Boston) and the first time he said “duck, duck, gray duck” I was SO CONFUSED. And I’m sorry to say he got a lot of crap from just about everyone who wasn’t from Minnesota for saying “gray duck” instead of “goose.” It’s so funny that you mentioned that in your post!

    Anyway, linguistics. Thanks for that map! It explains a lot of why I never heard double modals growing up or in college (except in my linguistics classes), but now that I live in Maryland I hear them all the time. It threw me off at first, but after eight or so months down here I’m used to it–and have even caught myself using them!

    I miss linguistics, and so, instead of rereading my old textbooks, I am going to follow your blog–sounds infinitely more fun to me! 🙂

  4. Pingback: You might could dig these multiple modals « Sentence first

  5. Very interesting post. Double modals aren’t in my idiolect at all — I’m from the west of Ireland — but I would be charmed to hear one in the wild. Curiosity and appreciation FTW! There seems to be a lingering tendency to consider standard English grammatically superior to nonstandard dialects, which is unfortunate (and, I suppose, inevitable).
    Did you see MultiMo, the new “Database of Multi Modals”? It was featured on Lingua Franca today.

    • It’s a bit more than lingering, I’m afraid. Hopefully that’ll change someday. And I did see that post, & your post! And I saw LSA was tweeting about double modals the other day, too. I think we really achieved at getting double modals a fair amount of internet exposure! 🙂

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