British and American English Comparative Multiple chapters

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5). Surprisingly, however, in a corpus of 50,000 spoken words compiled from "group discussions between representatives of the EU government and national agencies of higher education" (pp. 6-7), Breiteneder (2009) did not find a large incidence of 3rd person singular - O. In only about 21% of the cases where 3rd personal singular was used was the -s left off. Perhaps, reasons Breiteneder, this is because all the speakers in the study had received formal schooling in a SE, but if so, then why was the -s used in some cases and not in others? Breiteneder posits that in some instances the interlocutors may have been purposely leaving off the -s for social reasons (2009, p. 262).

Certain verbs and expletive phrases seem to divide along dialectal lines with regard to use of modal past. Jacobsson (1975) writes that the sentences I suggested he took it with him, and I suggested he should take it with him, both using modal past, are acceptable in British English and equivalent to the American version I suggested he take it with him, which uses subjunctive (p. 222). Likewise, it's important (that) you went at once (British dialect) (Jacobsson, p. 222) as compared with it's important (that) you go at once (American dialect). And there are many more examples of this kind. Interestingly, this dialectal difference is not merely stylistic, as Jacobsson observes: "In British English, the sentence it is important that we have an adequate supply of atom bombs could be taken to mean that we have already got the supply, while the American interpretation would be that it is important for us to get it" (p. 222).

Finally, the modal past expression as it were is commonly employed, at least in American English, as a rhetorical device signaling metaphor. It is frequently used to reinforce the metaphorical nature of an idiomatic expression that directly precedes it, as in: He told me so he, straight from the horse's mouth, as it was.

Modal Past in English

Most speakers of English, if asked what is meant by the -ed ending on a word such as lived, will know very well that it means "past tense" and signifies that the action of living is in the past. And in many cases, of course, this is true. However, past morphology also frequently has a meaning quite apart from "past time"; in fact, it often refers specifically to present or future time and semantically reflects modality rather than temporality. Consider the following uses of past morphology on the verb live:

When I was 16, I lived in Hawaii.

If I lived in Hawaii, I could go to the beach every day.

I wish I lived in Hawaii.

Of the above examples, only the first actually refers to past time. The others refer to the present time, despite containing the same nominally "past" form of the verb, lived. This incongruity between past morphology and non-past time is made more salient by the use of adverbs:

If you called her right now, you wouldn't get her because she's not at home.

If you asked me tomorrow, I would say yes.

This phenomenon is also reflected in the use of nominally past tense morphology alongside present tense morphology, which appears in either implied context or the paraphrased version of the sentence with nominal past tense morphology:

If I had a car, I would come pick you up. (Implied: I don't have a car; present tense)

How did you know I was here?

(implied: I'm here now; present tense)

He talks to me as if I were a child. (implied: I'm not a child; present tense)

What did you say your name was? (Jespersen, 1924, p. 294)

(temporally equivalent: What is your name? present tense)

I was hoping you could help me.

(temporally equivalent: I'm hoping you can help me; present tense) Could I ask you question?

(answer: Yes, you certainly can; present tense)

Jespersen (1954) refers to these uses of past morphology as "tenses of the imagination" and writes that "verbal forms which are primarily used to indicate past time are often used without that temporal import to denote unreality, impossibility, improbability or non-fulfillment" (p. 112). Davidsen-Nielsen (1990) points out that using past morphology to denote "unreality" is an epistemic usage, i.e., clearly modal (p. 170). Iatridou (2000) proposes that "past" is not actually the primary meaning of the morphology that usually goes by that name, but rather that "past" is simply one manifestation of its semantics.


Critical to the analysis of modal past is an understanding of both the form of tense morphology and the various notions of time as they are represented in English. English tense morphology corresponds to a binary system of past and non-past, signaled by verb inflections. Notional time, on the other hand, comprises past, present, and future, as well as relative pasts and futures. Notional time can be indicated many ways: periphrastically, through markers such as will and be going to; with adverb phrases of time, habituality, or punctuality; with verbal inflections such as -ed and -s; with aspectual morphology; through lexical sub-categorization, i.e., eventive (run) vs. stative (be); and simply through implied context. Jespersen (1924, p. 257) organizes notional time according to the following diagram:

Since the present is a point, it "has no dimensions and cannot be divided" (Jespersen, p. 256). The future and past, on the other hand, stretch infinitely in each direction and are sub-divided into distinctions of anterior and posterior time: anterior past, posterior past, anterior future, posterior future.

Anterior time, the past relative to another time, is formally represented in English by the perfect aspect. In the sentence, I had been in Istanbul for two months before I found that great kebab restaurant, the "having been in Istanbul" is past relative to the "finding of that great kebab restaurant." It is the past of a past - an anterior past, marked by combining past morphology with perfect aspect. Likewise, anterior future is rendered by combining the future marker will with the perfect: By the time I leave Istanbul next June, I will have eaten lots of kebab. This mechanism also shows up in the present perfect, which connects past and present time. It is important to differentiate anterior past and remote past, which exists in some languages.1 Remote past is a deictic designation, marking past as remote from the time of speaking, whereas anterior past is a relative designation which simply marks one past as occurring before another.

Notional past, then, can be represented in English both by inflectional past morphology and by the perfect aspect. An important feature of the perfect-as-marker-of-past is that the perfect can be used to mark temporal past only, never modal past. This will be illustrated in the following sections on modal auxiliaries and hypothetical conditionals, where the perfect aspect plays an important temporal role. Inflectional past, on the other hand, is generally ambiguous between a temporal and a modal reading. Whether a particular instance of inflectional past morphology represents temporal past or modal past depends on contextual elements. This ambiguity is demonstrated in the examples below, in the past morphology of had:

If he had a car... then why did he ride his bike everywhere? (temporal) if he had a car... then he wouldn't have to ride his bike everywhere. (modal)

Modal Auxiliaries

In order to understand how the phenomenon of modal past relates to modal auxiliaries, we need to first understand the nature of modal auxiliaries, define what is meant by "root" and "epistemic" meanings, and clarify the relationship between various modal auxiliaries. Modal auxiliaries are polysemous; in any given instance, the meaning of a modal auxiliary will fall into one of (at least) two categories. As Traugott (1989) observes, there is considerable diversity of opinion among linguists regarding the classification of modal auxiliaries and description of their meanings. Traugott claims that when a modal auxiliary exhibits epistemic meaning, it expresses "knowledge and belief about possibilities, [and] probabilities..." (p. 32). Her definition is derived from that of Palmer, and by extension those of Lyons and Jespersen, and is widely accepted among linguists (Traugott, p.32). Epistemic modality therefore deals with the degree to which a given proposition is, was, or will be an actual fact. Nearly all2 modal auxiliaries have epistemic meaning, though of course not in all discourse contexts.

She must study hard; she always gets as. (epistemic meaning of must).

It is widely acknowledged by historical linguists that the modal auxiliaries of modern English are reflexes of forms that were once used as main verbs with root meanings and that these meanings predated their development of epistemic meanings (Traugott, 1989, p. 36). These root meanings are still expressed by today's modal auxiliaries must, shall, ought to, had better, should, may, might, can, and could. It should be noted that while the modal auxiliary will still signals volition in some cases, it has also…

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