Overview: outsiders seeks help of linguists
part one: the set up
part two: the questions


I am a graduate student in philosophy investigating what we call "epistemic possibility". Sentence express this modality when they assert that something is possible relative to some epistemic category such as belief, knowledge, or evidence. Standard examples would be such as the following.

(1) It might rain tomorrow.

(2) The package may contain a bomb.

(3) My answer could be wrong.

The standard philosophical account of epistemic possibility is formalized in a Kripke semantics. The basic idea behind one standard version is that a proposition is epistemically possible for me if it's negation is not entailed by anything that I know (technically this only covers contingent propositions; necessary propositions require a caveat). This has led to countless problems and misunderstandings.


I think the most natural analysis of sentences one through three above is in terms of probability. I make probability the theoretical anchor and defined possibility in terms of it. Epistemic possibility is non-negligible probability. The threshold of negligibility will be sensitive to context. That is, it will vary depending upon the particulars of the situation.

I have been unable to find much on modals, but what I have found suggests that it is fairly well accepted in the linguistics community that the subjunctive often expresses probability judgments. So I have a few questions for you specialists out there.

1. Is my impression stated just above correct?

2. Do linguists sharply divide possibility in probability?

3. Could you please point me to some standard authoritative reference work which I could consult in this matter?

4. Are there any online resources which could provide me with a perspective of the state of the literature on modals and probability?

I would greatly appreciate any help anyone could offer in this matter. I'm afraid philosophers still aren't adequately in tune with empirical research in this matter. I'm seeking to correct that.

PS - I have a broken wrist, so I am dictating this with voice recognition software. I apologize in advance if I have missed any errors due to phonetic resemblance.
I can only add a little toward the answers to your questions.

In general the modal auxiliaries are used to express not statements of fact but actions or events that exist only as conceptions of the mind -- possibilities, potentialities, necessities, wishes, whatever may or may not eventuate in the future...

The modals are regularly used in main clauses following conditions contrary to fact. If the condition is contrary to fact, the main statement cannot be actual, hence the modal....
---Understanding Grammar, by Paul Roberts.

A grammar-book-level, but thorough, discussion of the subjunctive mode and modal auxiliaries is in Chapters 8-10 at http://www.fortunecity.com/bally/durrus/153/gramtoc.html
Hello Trentdougherty. Welcome to EnglishForward!
I'm not a linguist. Modality is not my theme either, but from what I've been learning I'd say: you have a fairly good grasp of this interdisciplinary field.

Have you read David Lewis? (I haven't yet, by the way. I know him only through re-quotations.) It's the first name which I hit on, so I refer you to this site, please copy & paste this address to URL if you didn't know it yet.



I'm not an appropriate one for answering your questions, so I hope other members around here will help you.
Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
rvw, thanks for the great link. That was just the sort of thing I was hoping for. As an outsider in the field, though, I need someone to tell me what the most authoritative grammar references are.

Roro, Yes I've read a lot of David Lewis. He was a brilliant and original (if sometimes quite ideosyncratic) thinker. As you say, I do hope some specialists will help me here.

Hi TD, thanks for your reply!  
Yeah, seems he was a original (if sometimes quite ideosyncratic) thinker! (ha-ha!)

Have you read this article below? I've heard a lot of it. Actually I have to read it (thus I'm not sure if this paper really concerns your question). You can find it easily in every library, I think.

The Grammatical Ingredients of Counterfactuality

Author: Iatridou S.
Source: Linguistic Inquiry, Volume 31, Number 2, 1 April 2000, pp. 231-270(40) Publisher: MIT Press
Teachers: We supply a list of EFL job vacancies
Hello td

I'm not an expert or a student of linguistics. But we've had a few discussions about modals on this forum, and I've noticed three things:

1. Speakers of different dialects seem to respond differently to the same modal verb.

2. People's sense of 'tense' in modals seems to vary. I find the 'past tense forms' undoubtedly 'past' or 'past-like' in sense, for instance; while other members deny that possibility.

3. People's sense of modal verbs seems to be modified (modalised?) by their experiences of other languages. Learning Romance languages seems to make native speakers more sensitive to the subjunctive, for instance.

On the subject of probability, I find the question is complicated by the fact that we often use modal verbs not to state our true impression of the likelihood of this or that, but the impression we want to present to our interlocutors.

That's me done on modals...