LINGUIST List 9.929

Mon Jun 22 1998

Sum: Modals

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  • YIB00161, summary: modals

    Message 1: summary: modals

    Date: Mon, 22 Jun 1998 11:28:00 +0900
    From: YIB00161 <>
    Subject: summary: modals

    Dear linguists, At the end of March I raised two questions about "must" and "will".

    My first question is: Which is more certain, (1) or (2)? (1) Speaker A: Someone is knocking on the door. Speaker B: That must be George. (2) Speaker A: Someone is knocking on the door. Speaker B: That will be George. British literature such as Halliday (1994) and Close (1975) say that "must" is

    more certain, while American literature such as Feigenbaum (1985) and Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983) say that "will" is more certain. I wou ld like to know whether there is a difference between British and American usage. My second question is about the following quoted examples. (3) Then the bell rang again, and then again, two short insistent peals. It must be Nan, he thought -- no one else would ring like that, as if they had a right to come in. (I. Murdoch, The Sandcastle) (4) Mason hung up the telephone and said to Della Street, "Irving is on his way here." "To see you?" "Probably." "So what do we do?" "Wait for him. The party may be rough." Five minutes later angry knuckles banged on the door of Mason's private office. "That will be Irving," Mason said . "I'll let him in myself, Della." (E. S. Gardner, The Case of Terrified Typist) As to "must" and "will", Palmer (1990:57-58) does not write anything about the relative degree of certainty. Instead, he points out that "must" indicate s the only possible conclusion on the basis of the evidence available, whereas "will" indicates what is a reasonable conclusion from previous knowledge. I think that examples (3) and (4) can be explained in terms of "evidence available" and "previous knowledge", respectively. In (3) the speaker conclud es from his observation about the bell ringing that it must be Nan. This can be regarded as an evidence available. In (4) Mason knows that Irving is coming. This is previous knowledge. So I think that Palmer's view is right. What do yo u think about this?

    Soon after that I got 11 e-mails. Thank you for answering my questions. I would express my sincere thanks to the following people who supplied useful data:Richard Cook, Aurora Vanderbosch, Douglass Dee, Max Wheeler, Vincent Jenkins, Stan Whitley, Eric Filson, Tim Higgins, Suzette Haden Elgin, Joey Laubach, and John Mackin. As to the first question, three people say that "will" is more certain than "must" and one says that "must" is more certain than "will". One of the respondents points out that relative certainty depends on context. He also doubts there's a true Brit./Amer. difference here. As to the second question, five people say that Palmer's explanation sounds right. But some of them assert that the distinction is not really firm.

    Kenji Kashino