Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Triple modals

The English language provides those who use it with several modal auxiliary verbs (a subset of a larger group of helper verbs): can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, would. Two of the nifty distinguishing qualities of modal auxiliaries are that we don't decline them, and they don't have infinitives. While one might expect to awaken at 4 a.m. due to jetlag, one never expects to should at any time or for any reason; and while petting a happy cat can be quite pleasurable, shoulding a cat is always a bad idea, at least in English.

Speakers of standard English generally consider it ungrammatical for modal auxiliary verbs to help one another. One of the truly delightful things about some regional performances of Southern American English--right up there with "red" being pronounced as a two-syllable word--is that no one bats an eye if you combine conditional modal verbs. (The conditionals are the waffly ones--might, could, should, would, ought to--the modals you might expect to hear followed by but, as in "he would share the Milka bar, but he doesn't want you to catch his cold.") Indeed, if you so desired, you might could combine conditional modal verbs all day long--although whether you oughta should is another question.

In rare cases, triple modals step forth to express a degree of trepidation not afforded by mere double modals. Consider: you might oughta should load the dishwasher before you go to bed, but you really oughta should unload it first. Indeed, next to the combined modals, a single waffly standard English should can sound downright bossy in Southern American English.

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