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