November 20, 2000
David Rubin wrote:
In this neck of the woods, one not infrequently encounters the following construction:
Well, for starters, might could isn't a double subjunctive; it's a double modal. Modals belong to a category of auxiliary verbs that includes would, ought, must, should, and have to. The subjunctive is a mode (a.k.a. "mood") of a verb, that uses the bare infinitive in many verbs in the present tenses (If he be great, let him do something to prove it), but has only one form, were, in past and conditional constructions (Would that Caesar were great!/If only Caesar were great!). The other modes are the familiar indicative (Caesar is great), and the imperative (Be great, Ceasar!/Let Caesar be great!). The vocative is also usually classed as a mode (O Caesar!). Modals took over the larger role that the subjunctive used to play, so that may be what's confusing you (or your source).
The use of the double modal is definitely not "illiterate," but rather typical of regional dialect. It just happens to be largely, if not exclusively, confined to spoken language or reported speech, which says more about the intolerance of dialectal forms in "standard" written English than it does about the education level of the speaker. It's generally true that more educated Southerners tend to avoid this construction, but that's due to a prejudice of perception, not to any inherent inferiority of the use.
In fact, I doubt whether the most common double modals, "might need to" and "might've used to," would clang in most English speakers' ears. However, this dialectal use is indeed mostly concentrated in the South and South Midland, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which also gives the following complete list of actually occurring forms, which I think is surprisingly varied:
may could, may can, may will, may shall, may should, may supposed to, might could, might oughta, might can, might should, might would, might better, might had better, may used to, might supposed to, might've used to, may need to, and might woulda had oughta (the last four are listed with no intervening punctuation; I don't know if it's a typo or not).
The use of most double modals is fading in the more northern reaches of its original range, which used to extend as far as the Pennsylvania German community. Most commonly, the may/might element takes the place of the adverb probably; in other cases, it's the can/could element that is substituted for be able to. Actually, many of the forms cited in DARE are not double modals, but examples of the way that might is being directly substituted for "probably," such as "might better" (you probably [had] better) and "might supposed to" (you are probably supposed to).
Double modals are quite common in Northern English (that's England English) and Scots. The settlement patterns of people of Scottish ancestry in the southern U.S. might would account for the concentration of the usage there.
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.