The South — where modals are doubled

Most of us probably don’t remember precise moments when we learned something. I remember the feeling of my uncle guiding my hands to tie my shoes when I was 5 (he was appalled that I didn’t already know), but I don’t remember precisely when I learned to read. Sometimes my college years are a blur, but I remember clearly the first time I learned the term for a peculiarity of Southern speech that I had heard all my life. I was in an introduction to anthropology class at UNC-Greensboro when my professor, whose name I can’t recall but who was a native Kentuckian, was discussing linguistics and dialects and told us about double modals. He pointed out that they are common in Appalachian mountain dialects. This sentence has a double modal: I might should get off this couch and go make us some supper.

A modal is a helping word. In “The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference,” Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson explain that a modal is a word that combines with a verb “to suggest conditions like need, ability, probability, obligation, likelihood and permission.” The modals are can, could, may, might, should, would, must, ought to and used to.

Some Southerners like to pile up modals in front of verbs. So the plumber you call to fix your leaking spigot might say, “I might could get there tomorrow around 1 or so.” Or your grandmother might say, “I used to could play the autoharp, but I can’t play a lick now.” Double modals are part of regional English, like “y’all” and “ain’t.” You wouldn’t use them in writing or in formal speech. You shouldn’t spring a double modal on the man or woman who is interviewing you for a job, and you should avoid double modals in most business speech.

Still, I am sorry that some Southernisms are disappearing from our speech. I lament the diminishing of regional accents, from Brooklyn, Boston and Chicago to Little Rock, New Orleans and Waco. Regional dialects aren’t gone, but the middle-of-America, broadcast-TV standard predominates. The change probably fosters communication, but it makes life less interesting. (Thank goodness for immigrants’ accents and hip-hop slang.)

If you want to read more about double modals and have a giggle or two, go to this excerpt from “Grammar Ain’t as Hard as You Think” by Michael Swan (Didcot Academic Press, 2005).’

The Mavens’ Word of the Day site also discusses double modals.

Keywords: grammar guide, language, writing

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.