More Southern Grammar: Double Modals

Whoa!  Sounds fancy, doesn’t it?  It’s hard to believe that something many people consider “bad grammar” has such a fancy name.
So what the hell am I talking about?  From Wikipedia:  “A modal verb (also modalmodal auxiliary verbmodal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality – that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation.  Examples include the English verbs canmust and should.”
So it follows that a double modal is using two of them at once–like a double negative, except they don’t cancel each other out (neither do double negatives, not really–English isn’t math, after all!).
When I studied double modals in linguistics classes there were several examples listed, but the only one I use or hear used is “might could.”  Example:  “Mommy, can we go to the store?” “Well, we might could go later.” Here’s another:  “Can you tell me how to get to the interstate?” “You can take Dutchtown Road, or you might could take Bob Gray.”
It’s hard for me to explain why Southerners say this or exactly what it means.  It’s been suggested that it arises from our innate politeness, especially in the second example where we wouldn’t want to TELL a stranger what to do, but would rather offer a gentle suggestion.
Another thing, unlike “Y’all,” which as I explained in an earlier post is considered a high prestige usage and is quickly picked up by immigrants to the South, the use of double modals is viewed unfavorably and is rarely assimilated.   Speakers seem themselves to sense this–analysts have had a difficult time getting examples when people knew they were being recorded, and would often not hear double modals until they pretended the interview was over and asked for directions to their next stop!  It’s not something that I would typically use in writing, not even in something informal like a letter or a status update, whereas I use y’all in that context all the time.  It’s not something I’d say in a job interview either.
And although I know when to say it–I wouldn’t even have to think twice about it–all I can tell you is that there is a subtle difference in meaning between double modals and single modals.  In the first example, it’s somewhat more than might and less than could.  If any of my Southern readers think you might could explain it better, have at it in the comments!

14 thoughts on “More Southern Grammar: Double Modals

  1. Helga

    I still love the “Southern past tense: done been, done gone, etc.” I get a big kick out of that one. I might could even say this myself sometimes. 🙂

  2. Helga

    Yes, I am told that I have a southern accent intermingled with a slight German accent. Usually people tell me that they love to hear me talk! Also, in the rural areas, people “does”. Drives me crazy!

  3. Clisby

    I frequently hear “might could” and “used to could”, although I don’t say them (I guess my parents didn’t.) They were never fixin’ to do anything, either.
    When I lived in Ohio, one regional expression I had never heard before was where you leave out “to be”, as in: “The yard needs mowed” or “The baby needs fed”.

    1. My husband is from Baltimore, so he thinks we talk funny too. 😉 He does say y’all now, and even your-all’s!. Studies show that outsiders never pick up double modals, though, which is interesting. And the only one of my kids who uses them is my 21-year-old daughter, who started doing it on purpose.

  4. Clisby

    I wonder if leaving out “to be” is from Appalachia rather than Deep South (my husband is from southeastern Ohio, near W. VA.) I grew up in SC (with a 3-year hiatus in Mississippi) and I never heard this until I moved to Ohio. Another Ohio/Pennsylvania thing I remember is “alls” – as in “Alls you need is love” or “Alls you have to do is push that button.” Another one was “phantom” instead of “fathom”. Like “I can’t phantom what he was thinking” instead of “I can’t fathom what he was thinking.”

    1. I think you are right about that, Clisby. That’s one my father said but never my mother, so I know it’s more East Tennessee than Deep South in origin. Never heard your other two examples. My husband’s grandmother was from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and used a few quaint expressions from there that I can’t bring to mind right now. Dialects are fascinating to me. Love the “phantom” example–my mother-in-law says “flustrated” instead of “frustrated.”

  5. I use both of the double modals that Lesliesholly mentioned above, “might ought to” and “used to could.” I also use the afore mentioned “might could.” I think if I were personally pressed to describe what “might could” really means, I think it implies a sense of uncertainty that could alone avoids. When I say “might could,” I don’t think I quite mean that it is possible, i.e. what could means. I think I mean that it is possible but unlikely. I have to admit that I’ve stopped saying it as much now that I don’t live in the south full time, but it often slips into what I’m saying when I don’t notice it.
    I completely believe you when you say that it is something uniquely southern that northerners never pick up. My mother, who has lived in the south for almost half of her life, has picked up y’all, but never other southernisms like double modals.

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