Calling linguists, grammarians, philosophers of language…

Is there a term that covers the words can, may, must, and will? They seem to have weird linguistic properties, particularly, it’s hard to negate them without suggesting the negation (that was awkward) — what I mean is that we have the constructions “you must X” and “you must not X,” but there is no similarly concise way to say “you neither must nor must not X” (that is, X is permissible). It would be nice to have a “you not-must X,” but, like the parenthesis issue a few posts ago, our language seems to lack the grouping power to do that. Ditto with the other words. Someone give me an account of this!


9 Responses to “Calling linguists, grammarians, philosophers of language…”

  1. Stephen Bank Says:

    could be a good place to start.

  2. Steve M. Says:

    A thought:

    Is the absence of obligation permission? Or is it prohibition? In the former case, the opposite of “you must X” is “you may X.” In the latter, the opposite of “you must X” is “you must X” is “you must not X,” though my ear prefers “X is forbidden.” In this case, “obligation” isn’t exactly ambiguous; it’s that obligations can be meaningful in (at least) two ways. They can be meaningful because they can take away your choice (must/may) and because they insist you do something otherwise forbidden (must/mustn’t). (Though I’m not sure the second case stands entirely on its own.)

    The words you cite are all auxiliaries that modify verbs in ways that are of similarly ambiguous meaning. There’s can/can’t and can/impossible; may/may not and may/not your choice; and will/won’t and will/not your choice (I guess?).

  3. mariana Says:

    You just need the negation symbol with that there is not much. You start from an ontologie that has certainties and inference rules from where you create new truth. Anyway the language changes each time more quickly in internet time, so I do not belive it is woth it to pot it in a formal notation now.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thank you Stephen, I knew there had to be a term for these words!

  5. Steve M. Says:

    How can you not have heard of modal verbs? I’m not sure this generalizes to all them, though — does “dare” really have two independent senses?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Steve, I’ve had a longstanding aversion to the whole linguistics thing thanks to extremely bad teachers.

  7. Kenny Says:

    While these are all modals, I think that you are interested in particular in ‘deontic modals.’ Most philosophical talk about modality is concerned with ‘possibly,’ ‘necessarily,’ etc., and uses of ‘must’, ‘may’, etc., that are equivalent to these modifiers. In metaethics there is some interest now in deontic modals where, for instance, ‘must’ takes on the sense of (moral, legal, etc.) obligation, rather than the sense of physical, metaphysical, or logical necessity.

  8. Stephen Bank Says:

    my first german teacher was so scary and inconsistent that I still shiver when I hear the word “genitive”.

  9. ben wolfson Says:

    Modal auxiliary.

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