The following is commentary related to Multiple Modals. It is arranged chronologically by year and numbered within each year. It comes from a variety of sources, both from the United States and Great Britain.



1. McMordie, W. Our Ulster Accent and Ulster Provincialisms. Belfast: The Religious Tract and Book Depot, pp. 37-38)

How comes it we have the expression current, “He’ll not can go”? The verb “go” has here two auxiliaries and a negative before it,–“He will not can go.” Probably no Irishman would say, “He will can go.” In is only when the negative comes in that the two negatives can and will are used together, as,

I’ll not can reply to this letter today.

They’ll not can come at the time you mentioned.

Now the two auxiliaries “will” and “can” ought not both to be joined with the same principal verb whether the negative is present or absent. The above expressionsare all incorrect. The correct equivalents are.

                He will not be able to go.

I shall not be able to reply to this letter to-day.

They will not be able to come at the time you mentioned.

The blunder pointed out in this section is much more frequent than any one would imagine whose ear is not sensitive in such matters. Many an Irishman who is well up in English idioms generally commits this mistake here instanced. 



1. Atwood, E. Bagby. A Survey of Verb Forms in the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 35.

[In fieldwork for the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States] the phrase might could, in the context “I (might could) do it” (future), is recorded wherever it occurred in the M[iddle] A[tlantic] S[tates] and the S[outh] A[tlantic] S[tates]. The isogloss of this form is peculiar in that it not only indicates a typical South and South Midland form, but shows the form to be current in the German area of Pa. as well ... Within the shaded area of Figure 28, Type I informants offer this form with hardly any exceptions, and it is also used by from two thirds (Va.) to practically all (N.C.) of Type II informants as well. Cultured informants as a rule avoid the construction; there are very few instances of it in this type. A good many informants in the S[outh] A[tlantic] S[tates] use the form mought rather than might in this phrase. (Atwood, E. Bagby. 1953. A Survey of Verb Forms in the Eastern United States, p. 35, Pennsylvania to North Carolina)



1. Characteristics of Non-Standard Grammar in Scotland.  Caroline A. Macafee

2. Brown, Keith and Jim Miller (1975) "Modal verbs in Scottish English", Work in Progress (Department of Linguistics, University of Edinburgh) 10, 99-114. 

In Central and Southern Scotland, can and could are found as the second element in double modal constructions. Can is regularly used as an infinitive, without to, following will. Brown and Miller (1975) tested the responses of Edinburgh speakers to sentences containing will can, and found the following order of acceptability:

a) negative declarative:

He’ll no can come this week (Brown and Miller, 1975: 174)

b) positive declarative:

The manager will can tell you if it's come (ibid, p.174)

c) negative interrogative:

Will he no can mend them? (ibid, p.174)



1. Linguist List Discussion 

Date: Tue, 1 March 94 16:51

From: king

Subject: double modals

The use of so-called 'double modal' constructions is quite common in the South and Southwest. I come from Dallas originally, and such constructions as you have cited are common there in everyday speech, and they serve a real linguistic purpose; modal forms such as 'could and 'should' are ambiguous in Modern English, as they have both an indicative and a subjunctive sense. For example, 'I could come' can mean either 'I was able to come' (past indicative of 'can') or ' I would be able to come' (subjunctive). In German, the two forms are distinct: 'ich konnte kommen' vs. 'ich koennte kommen'. The use of double modal constructions with 'may' or 'might' serves to reintroduce this distinction. Thus, for a Southerner, 'I might could come' or 'I may could come' carry the subjunctive meaning, whereas 'I could come' is only indicative in meaning. The difference between 'may could' and 'might could' is subtle; 'might could' seems to be a bit less certain than 'may could', but many people use only 'might could' or both expressions interchangeably. Similar arguments apply to 'may should' and 'might should'. Here, 'may' and 'might' appear to weaken the obligation sense of 'should'. Concerning the forms which you did hear, such as 'may can', 'should could' etc.: 'may' and 'might' are the only elements which can appear first in a double modal, since they (esp. 'might') have the strongest sense of expressing possibility as opposed to certainty. Therefore, they are used to express the subjunctive senses. The second element can only be 'could' or 'should' since these alone are ambiguous; 'may can' is unlikely, since 'can' has only an indicative sense.

I hope this makes the situation a little clearer. The use of double modals in Southern American English fills a gap in Standard English grammar, namely the loss of inflectional distinction in English between indicative and subjunctive modals. Dialect or regional forms are often more progressive in gap-filling than is a standard language. Consider the sad case of 'you', which is ambiguous in Standard English between singular and plural meanings. Here the regional forms have been quite productive: 'y'all' in the South (***only plural!!!!***) or similar forms elsewhere.

Happy language researching,

Tom King


2. Linguist List Discussion 

Date: Wed, 02 Mar 94 09:24

From: Larry Horn

Subject: Re:5.241 Double Modals

In response to Tom King's posting, I confess I feel a bit uneasy hearing 'could' described as having indicative vs. subjunctive senses. For one thing, I take this mood distinction, at least as reflected in English, to involve subcategorization by some higher predicate (e.g. 'demand that he leave') or other operator taking scope over it (e.g. 'if she were to leave')-- note that these are two different notions, or realizations, of 'subjunctive'. In any case, subjunctive is a grammatical category and does not correspond to a constant 'sense'. I would be more comfortable with the standard terminology of modality, in which 'could' would be described as having an epistemic sense of use (He could be there, for all I know), a root meaning as the past of 'can' (She could run a 4 minute mile in her younger days) that expresses potentiality or physical possibility, and a deontic meaning (as in the sequence of tense example She said that you could come). The understandings (i.e. senses or uses, depending on the analysis) thus correspond respectively to 'it is possible that...', 'it was possible for...' or 'NP was able to...', and 'it was permitted for...'/'NP was permitted to'.

That all aside, my own informant work on double modal dialects in Texas and Arkansas is consistent with Tom King's finding. Specifically, may/might can occur ONLY as the FIRST modal in a sequence, and always with the epistemic meaning 'maybe', 'it is possible that'. On the other hand, can/could ONLY occurred as the LAST modal in a sequence, and always with a root on deontic meaning involving ability or permission. The maximum number of modals in attested sequences was three, and 'should' and 'will' were found in addition to others. Thus,

He'll can come. 'He will be able to come'; You might should come. 'Perhaps you should come.'; You might could be right, and so on. 

It's nice to know these constructions have roots in the sod of the old country.

Larry Horn


3. American Dialect Society List 

Date: Sun, 19 Jun 1994, 22:55 EDT

Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L@UGA.BITNET

From: 'James_C.Stalker' 

Subject: Re: Double Modals up north

Trudgill and Chambers (1991) Dialects of English: Studies in Grammatical Variation. Longman has a nice article by Keith Brown, <Double Modals in Harwick Scots> on the topic under discussion. It seems to be more widespread than might have been assumed. A limited range of double modals was quite common in the Louisville, KY area some 20-25 years ago, although I cannot attest that it is still viable there. Certainly, 'might could' and should ought' were among them. I specify 'limited' because the range is not as broad as Brown suggests for Harwick Scots.


4. American Dialect Society List 

Date: Mon, 20 Jun 1994 17:29

Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L@UGA.BITNET

From: 'George Halliday'

Subject: Re: Double Modals up north

Brown's article is about Hawick Scots. 

There is also an article by a Russian Linguist, Scur, on double modals in Scots in Linguistica Hafniensa 11 (1968), in which he draws attention to double modals in some other Germanic languages apart from Scots - the only one I can remember being Afrikaans.

The stuff in Brown's article would apply to Scots as a whole, not just the odd dialect. It would pay people interested in Amer. dialects to look closely at Scots - a lot of the features that have been debated for the last 20 years or so : copula omission, be as a finite copula, to be deletion (I want out) - are found in Scots.

George Halliday


5. American Dialect Society List 

Date: Fri, 29 Jul 1994 15:38

Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L@UGA.BITNET>

From: Mike Picone

Subject: Re: Forrest Gump

No, I don't guess I'm not really ready for Tinsel Town isoglosses, though I can imagine it could be an interesting study for anyone who wanted to devote time to it. Interesting to the extent that it reveals how certain varietal features become prominent for indexing purposes and then are imitated in grossly inaccurate ways. Or, conversely, their presence in prestige varieties or in one's own variety is totally ignored. 

For example, though double modals are ubiquitous down here, I don't ever recall hearing any actor incorporate one into Hollywood Southern. I just think it would be lost on most Yankees who haven't indexed this and would (they) would just interpret it to be a mistake or a repetition. Like the time Clinton said 'might could' during one of the debates. I'm sure it just flew right by.

Well, I guess I'm not telling anyone anything they don't already know, so I'll depart from this exchange after one last comment.

Something that comes back to mind, what with all these movie titles mentioned with links to the South, are the comments of some drama students that I overheard at a campus play a few months ago. They were comparing notes on relative success in suppressing their Alabama speech traits so that they could make it in acting. One had already decided that it was impossible and that she would opt for a career in stage design in order to be able to stay close to the theater. So my question is (but I already know the answer), why can't some of these people be given a chance to shine when it comes to casting that 'Southern' role? It happens so rarely (Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter), I'm talking about serious roles, mind you, not HeeHaw fodder. They no longer keep African Americans confined to minstrel comedy (if it can be dignified with the name comedy), but they let them play themselves. So, though white actors don't dare don blackface, non-Southern actors think nothing of doing an atrocious parody of Southern speech and behavior. I don't want to take anything away from Robin Wright's performance in Forrest Gump -- I think she showed a lot of talent -- but I can't help myself from thinking of these aspiring Alabama actresses that I overheard who will likely never have a chance at their day in the sun. Maybe it's no big deal; we'd probably be a lot better off if we paid less attention, not more, to the Tinsel. But as long as we were on the subject...

Mike Picone (Yankee-born, in case you were wondering)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

University of Forrest Gump 

6. The Bubba List 

Date: Tue, 8 Nov 94 18:50


From: Mary Ellen Batchelor 

Subject: [BUBBA-L: 13614] Re: Southern Expressions

On Sun, 6 Nov 1994, Britton Elliot wrote:

>Bubbas everywhere:

>I have a question about what I think is a Southern expression. My Canadian wife and I are having a little debate about the use of the expression 'might could' to mean 'might be able to' (as in: 'We >might could eat barbecue tonight, if King's is open'). I say this all the time. The expression comes very naturally to me, but my wife thinks it's the strangest thing she's ever heard. She teaches >English as a Second Lanugage, and keeps reminding me that it's bad grammar (which makes me use it even more...).

>I've tried this expression out on several people up here, and they are equally dumbfounded when I use it. They've never heard anyone say it before. So: is this a Southern expression, a South >Carolina expression, a personal idiosyncrasy or what? Are there any Southerners or Yankees on the list who find this expression strange?

>Britt (A bubba whose ESL students all know the correct usage of the word 'y'all')

Dear Elliot:

I have heard 'might could' all my life and still hear it. Guess it's a real Southernism. I grew up in Texas.

Mary Ellen Batchelor



1. Greenbaum, Sidney. Oxford English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (pp. 154-155) 

In standard English two modals cannot co-occur. However, in some non-standard dialects some double modals can co-occur for example might could, might should, won’t can’t, would could, should can, may can, will can. They are used also after infinival to; for example have to can, used to could, going to can, would like to could, have to can. The second modal is usually can or could