Linguistic modality

In linguistics, modality is a system of linguistic options that allows for expressing a speaker's general intentions (or illocutionary point) as well as the speaker's belief as to whether the proposition expressed is true, obligatory, desirable, or actual. Modal options can be realized by word order (moods), modal auxiliaries and modal adjuncts.

Sometimes, the term mood is used to refer to both mood and modality; however, the two can be distinguished according to whether they refer to the grammatical expressions of various modalities (mood) or the meanings so expressed (modality). Modality can also be considered equivalent to the idea of illocutionary force if the kinds of expressions which can express modal meanings also include lexical items such as performative verbs.

Modality is closely intertwined with other linguistic phenomena such as tense and aspect, evidentiality, conditionals, and others. As with other areas of linguistics, modality has been studied extensively from typological as well as formal perspectives.

Cross-linguistically, modality can be expressed by a variety of means, such as auxiliary verbs, verbal morphology (mood) or adverbs.

Typological approaches to modality usually favour a slightly wider definition of modality.

Expressions of modality

Classically, three categories of modality are distinguished in linguistics: epistemic, deontic and circumstantial (or 'root') modality.[1]:639[2]:47 Epistemic modality is possibility and necessity relative to a speaker's knowledge, while deontic modality has to do with permissions and obligations according to some system of rules. Circumstantial modality is relative to the relevant circumstances of a conversation and in general dependent on facts of the world rather than the agent's knowledge.[1]:640 These different modalities can be expressed by auxiliaries such as 'must' or 'can', and can be illustrated in the English example below:

(1) Agatha must be the murderer. (expressing epistemic modality)
(2) Agatha must go to jail. (expressing deontic modality)
(3) Agatha must sneeze. (expressing circumstantial modality)

The sentence in (1) might be spoken by someone who has decided that all of the relevant facts in a particular murder investigation point to the conclusion that Agatha was the murderer, even though it may or may not actually be the case. The 'must' in this sentence thus expresses circumstantial modality, for 'for all we know', Agatha must be the murderer - where 'for all we know' is relative to some knowledge the speakers possess. In contrast, (2) might be spoken by someone who has decided that, according to some standard of conduct, Agatha has committed a vile crime, and therefore the correct course of action is to jail Agatha. The 'must' in sentence (3) has neither an epistemic reading (that Agatha must sneeze is not dependent on some speaker's knowledge), nor a deontic reading (it is not the case that Agatha must sneeze according to the law). Rather, that Agatha must sneeze is relative to the relevant circumstances of the utterance. Note also that, although the English 'must' is ambiguous between these interpretations, the form of the other elements in the sentences helps to disambiguate.

In standard formal approaches to linguistic modality, an utterance expressing modality is one that can always roughly be paraphrased to fit the following template:

(1) According to [a set of rules, wishes, beliefs,...] it is [necessary, possible] that [the main proposition] is the case.

The set of propositions which forms the basis of evaluation is called the modal base. The result of the evaluation is called the modal force.[1]:649 For example, the utterance in (2) expresses that, according to what the speaker has observed, it is necessary to conclude that John has a rather high income:

(2) John must be earning a lot of money.

The modal base here is the knowledge of the speaker, the modal force is necessity. By contrast, (3) could be paraphrased as ‘Given his abilities, the strength of his teeth, etc., it is possible for John to open a beer bottle with his teeth’. Here, the modal base is defined by a subset of John's abilities, the modal force is possibility.

(3) John can open a beer bottle with his teeth.

Semantic accounts

Semantic approaches dealing with modality are traditionally based on the principles of modal logic. Both work with the notion that propositions can be mapped to sets of possible worlds; that is, a proposition can be defined as the set of worlds in which that proposition is true.[2]:22 For example, the proposition ‘the earth is flat’ corresponds to the set of possible worlds in which the earth is in fact flat.

In this framework, modal expressions such as must and can are then analyzed as quantifiers over a set of possible worlds. This set of worlds is given by the modal base and is said to be the set of accessible worlds:[3]:79-90 For example, in sentence (2) above, the modal base is the knowledge the speaker has in the actual world. Therefore, the set of accessible worlds is defined by the information the speaker has about John. Assume for example that the speaker knows that John just bought a new luxury car and has rented a huge apartment. The speaker also knows that John is an honest person with a humble family background and doesn't play the lottery. The set of accessible worlds is then the set of worlds in which all these propositions which the speaker knows about John are true.

The notions of necessity and possibility are then defined along the following lines: A proposition p follows necessarily from the set of accessible worlds, if all accessible worlds are part of p (that is, if p is true in all of these worlds).[3]:80 Applied to the example in (2) this would mean that in all the worlds which are defined by the speaker's knowledge about John, it is the case that John earns a lot of money (assuming there is no other explanation for John's wealth).

In a similar way a proposition p is possible according to the set of accessible worlds (i.e. the modal base), if some of these worlds are part of p.

Ways of expressing modality

Verbal morphology

In many languages modal categories are expressed by verbal morphology – that is, by alterations in the form of the verb. If these verbal markers of modality are obligatory in a language, they are called mood markers. Well-known examples of moods in some European languages are referred to as subjunctive, conditional and indicative as illustrated below with examples from French, all three with the verb avoir ‘to have’. As in most Standard European languages, the shape of the verb conveys not only information about modality, but also about other categories such as person and number of the subject.

(4) Je doute que vous ayez raison.
1s doubt that 2p have.2p.subjunctive right
`I doubt that you're right.'
(5) Si c'était vrai, on l'aurait vu sur CNN
If this-was true one it-have.3s.conditional seen on CNN
`If this were true, one would have seen it on CNN.'
(6) Il a raison
3s have.3s.indicative right
`He's right.'

An example for a non-European language with a similar encoding of modality is Manam. Here, a verb is prefixed by a morpheme which encodes number and person of the subject. These prefixes come in two versions, one realis version and one irrealis version. Which one is chosen depends on whether the verb refers to an actual past or present event (realis), or merely to a possible or imagined event (irrealis).[4]


Modal auxiliary verbs, such as the English words may, can, must, ought, will, shall, need, dare, might, could, would, and should, are often used to express modality, especially in the Germanic languages.

Lexical expression

Verbs such as "want" can be used to express modality lexically, as can adverbs.


Complementizers (e.g. Russian) and conjunctions (e.g. Central Pomo[5]) can be used to convey modality.

Many different kinds of modal interpretations have been observed and studied, resulting in a variety of typologies. What follows below is one of the many ways that modality has been classified. Only broad categories have been distinguished below: the reader is referred to the main articles and the references for more detailed discussions.

Realis vs. irrealis

The closely related realis, declarative, and evidential moods refer to situations that actually exist, are claimed to exist, or are inferred to exist. In contrast, irrealis moods refer to situations that are known to not exist. Two common irrealis moods are the conditional mood, stating what would happen under a certain condition or conditions (expressed periphrastically in English as would + main verb), and the subjunctive mood, stating the speaker's preferences for what should occur (such as he leave in the English I demand that he leave) or hypotheticals (such as English If I were to go,....).

Counterfactuals refer to things that are contrary to the actual situation. In English, counterfactuals can be expressed implicitly in "if"-clauses by using a tense form that normally refers to a time prior to the time actually semantically referred to in the if-clause. For example, If I knew that, I wouldn't have to ask contains the counterfactual If I knew, which refers to the present tense despite the form of the verb, and which denies the proposition "I know that". This contrasts with the construction If I know that,..., which is not a counterfactual because it means that maybe I know it and maybe I don't (or maybe I will know it, and maybe I will not). Likewise, If I had known that, I would have gone there contains the counterfactual If I had known, denying the proposition that I had known.

Epistemic vs. deontic modality

Epistemic modals are used to indicate the possibility or necessity of some piece of knowledge. It deals with the likelihood of the actualization of the state of affairs. In the epistemic use, modals can be interpreted as indicating inference or some other process of reasoning involved in coming to the conclusion stated in the sentence containing the modal. However, epistemic modals do not necessarily require inference, reasoning, or evidence. One effect of using an epistemic modal (as opposed to not using one) is a general weakening of the speaker's commitment to the truth of the sentence containing the modal. However, it is disputed whether the function of modals is to indicate this weakening of commitment, or whether the weakening is a by-product of some other aspect of the modal's meaning.

Examples of the expression of epistemic modality in English are: he might be there (low probability, substantial doubt), He may be there (possibility), He should be there by now (high probability), and He must be there by now (certitude, no doubt).

In contrast, deontic modality is concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including ability, permission, and duty). In other words, deontic modals state something about the desirability of the actualization of the state of affairs, expressed in varying degrees of obligation. English examples include She can go (ability), You may go (permission), You should go (request), and You must go (command). In English as in many other languages, some of the same words are used for deontic modality as for epistemic modality, and the meaning is distinguished from context: He must be there by now (epistemic) versus He must be there tomorrow at noon (deontic).

Ability, desirability, permission, obligation, and likelihood

Ability, desirability, permission, obligation, and probability can all be exemplified by the usage of auxiliary modal verbs in English:

Ability: I can ride a bicycle (in the present); I could ride a bicycle (in the past)
Desirability: I should go; I ought to go
Permission: I may go
Obligation: I must go
Likelihood: He might be there; He may be there; He must be there

See also


  1. Kratzer, A. (1991). Modality. In: von Stechow, A. & Wunderlich, D. (Eds.) Semantics: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  2. Portner, Paul (2009). Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929242-4.
  3. Kaufmann, S.; Condoravdi, C. & Harizanov, V. (2006) Formal approaches to modality. Formal approaches to modality. In: Frawley, W. (Ed.). The Expression of Modality. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter
  4. see: Elliott, Jennifer R. (2000). Realis and irrealis: Forms and concepts of the grammaticalisation of reality. In: Linguistic Typology (Vol. 4, pp. 55-90).
  5. Mithun, M. (1995). On the Relativity of Irreality. In: Bybee, J. & Fleischman, S. (Eds.) Modality in Grammar and Discourse John Benjamins

Further Reading

  • Asher, R. E. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 2535–2540). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • Blakemore, D. (1994). Evidence and modality. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 1183–1186). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4.
  • Bybee, Joan; Perkins, Revere, & Pagliuca, William (1994). The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Calbert, J. P. (1975). Toward the semantics of modality. In J. P. Calbert & H. Vater (Eds.), Aspekte der Modalität. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.
  • Callaham, Scott N. (2010). Modality and the Biblical Hebrew Infinitive Absolute. Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 71. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Chung, Sandra; & Timberlake, Alan (1985). Tense, aspect and mood. In T. Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon (Vol. 3, pp. 202-258). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kratzer, A. (1981). The notional category of modality. In H.-J. Eikmeyer & H. Rieser (Eds.), Words, worlds, and contexts: New approaches in word semantics. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1979). Modality and the English modals. London: Longman.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1994). Mood and modality. Cambridge Univ. Press. Second edition 2001.
  • Saeed, John I. (2003). Sentence semantics 1: Situations: Modality and evidentiality. In J. I Saeed, Semantics (2nd. ed) (Sec. 5.3, pp. 135–143). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22692-3, ISBN 0-631-22693-1.
  • Sweetser, E. E. (1982). Root and epistemic modality: Causality in two worlds. Berkeley Linguistic Papers, 8, 484-507.
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