Modal Verbs in the News

Grammar seldom makes the news. In fact nothing seems to make the news much these days except for Brexit and Trump.

I made a conscious decision early last year NOT to write about the US president on this blog, even though politics is one of its main thematic axes. Since Trump seems to thrive, like some extremophile strain of virulent bacterium, even on negative publicity, I feel it is the best policy not to give him any publicity at all.

I make an exception, however, where language is concerned; and, since I have written extensively on modal verbs in past posts, I feel obliged to comment when one of them makes the headlines, as has occurred recently, even though it came out of the mouth of Mr. T.

At the Helsinki summit press conference, when asked a question regarding Russian tampering in the 2016 US elections, Mr. T uttered the following words: “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]”

After much outcry over this statement, not least among members of his own party, the very next day the US president retracted his words, claiming that he had ‘misspoken’ ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’ and thereby, in an unimpressive display of clumsy prestidigitation, completely inverted the apparent original meaning of the phrase.

Leaving aside questions regarding the genuineness of this self-correction or the nature of Mr. T’s true feelings towards Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, I think it is worthwhile taking the president at his word on this occasion and examining the ‘mistake’ in purely linguistic terms.

To be fair, Trump himself, in the course of his retraction, explained the error in precisely this way. “It’s a sort of double negative,” he added (off-script) after reading out the corrected version of the original statement.

This provides a glimpse of insight into what really goes on in Mr. T’s mind, whether his intentions were duplicitous or not.

Trump is old enough to have been schooled quite sternly in a kind of prescriptive grammar, which, like much of what Mr. T believes in, is rightly considered politically incorrect and scientifically wrong these days. One such ‘rule’ that would have been beaten into him (perhaps literally) as a young student at a posh military school in the 1950s concerns avoidance of a so-called ‘double negative’.

The reason for this, of course, is that phrases of the kind “I ain’t done nothing” tend to be stereotypical markers of low social status and, in the US, non-white ethnicity.

The truth is that, from a descriptivist point of view, standard middle-class white English, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a language in which multiple negative markers are interpreted ‘logically’ rather than emphatically. Thus, “I haven’t done nothing’ is interpreted to mean “I have done something.” The two negatives cancel each other out just as they do in mathematics. I should add that, in this example, the double negative adds a sort of whining apologetic tone to a neutral double-positive statement and sounds sort of ‘off’.

But this logical interpretation of double negatives is by no means a linguistic universal nor even true for the wide range of brands of English now spoken around the world. Many languages, including my own second language, Portuguese, use multiple negative markers primarily to emphasize the negativity. Logic doesn’t come into it. No means no. And three no’s mean “No! No! No!”

Even within the English family of dialects, this emphatic use of multiple negatives is accepted in certain contexts and is common in cultures whose language use is colored by an ancestral substrate.

Going back to Trump’s sentence, however, we should note that it is not in fact a double negative in the sense outlined above. The two negative markers clearly occur in separate clauses, one embedded in the other in the manner of indirect speech.

In such cases, the logical interpretation of negatives applies in all cultures and all languages. There is a world of difference between “I never done nothing,” which is clearly emphatic and “I never said I never done nothing”, in which the two negative clauses cancel one another out.

So, there is nothing grammatically wrong with what Mr T. originally said and no reason for a mea culpa or correction on these grounds.

This is what linguists and language teachers call hyper-correction. The speaker or writer makes a mistake because they are inappropriately or over-exactly applying a ‘rule’ learnt by rote.

However, as is so often the case when we start to analyze discourse linguistically, there is something else going on here. And this concerns not the old-fangled notion of double negatives but a very modern shift in the use of the modal verb ‘would’.

There are no prescriptive sociolinguistically-determined rules regarding the use of ‘would’.

Supposedly descriptive grammar text books aimed at non-native speakers have traditionally typified ‘would’ as a ‘translation’ of the Latinate conditional. It usually presented in the context of sentences containing ‘if-clauses,’ in cases where the outcome is unlikely or counterfactual, although the modal verb is obviously not confined to this structure and context.

In fact, as Michael Lewis has pointed out, this traditional exemplification and implicit characterization of the use of ‘would’ is misleading to say the least. Numerous language students of mine have noted that ‘would’ does not occur most frequently in English in relation to an conditional, nor is ‘would’ the most frequent modal verb used in conditional sentences.

Matters are further confounded by the fact that there is a strong tendency, even in erudite discourse, and especially in the United States, to use ‘would’ in both halves of a sentence involving an ‘if-clause’.

Interestingly, this grammatical deviation from the ‘norm’ tends to go unnoticed and is certainly not subject to the kind of prescriptivist opprobrium associated with double negatives. The veteran CNN journalist, Wolf Blitzer, does it all the time.

There are in fact some good reasons for this structural development. The double use of ‘would’ sets up a nice parallelism that adds clarity, especially in situations where clarity is especially important, such as those involving reporting or reading the news.

There is, however, another more negative tendency to use ‘would’ very generally and vaguely, merely to distance or exempt the writer or speaker from responsibility for the statement uttered. It is habitually used by journalists and politicians and is even spreading at an alarming rate to academic discourse as well. In Latin languages, the equivalent use of a conditional has become standard in all fields of discourse to the extent that it is practically obligatory in any public statement of an opinion and even in statements of facts.

I get why people do this. It sounds modest and polite and acknowledges differences of opinion and the need for scientific doubt. However, it also threatens to cast a veil of suspicion over any statement uttered (however self-evident or well-documented) and, at the same time, provides a convenient safety-valve of potential retraction for those who wish to benefit from the dissemination of patent untruths.

It lays the linguistic groundwork for a world in which all knowledge is suspect, all facts questionable, and in which all promises, commitments and principles can easily be turned on a dime.

That may be the kind of world in which the likes of Mr. T prefer to operate, but it is definitely not the kind of gloomy unpredictable dark age most people in this world would ever wish to live in.



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