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Beyond modal idioms and modal harmony: a corpus-based analysis of gradient idiomaticity in mod + adv collocations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2020

SUSANNE FLACH*
Affiliation:
Institut de langue et littérature anglaises, Université de Neuchâtel, Espace Tilo-Frey 1, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland, susanne.flach@unine.ch

Abstract

How do we know that would rather and may well are more idiomatic than would well or will really? Can this intuition be measured systematically in usage data? Traditionally, modal idioms such had/’d better, would/’d rather or might (as) well are seen as distinct from more compositional collocations, which may be modally harmonic (could possibly, will probably) or not (could also, might even). Yet the collocation of modal auxiliaries + adverbs (mod + adv) is more complex than suggested by a binary classification into idioms and non-idioms. This article uses data from COCA and the method of collostructional analysis to show that the difference between qualitatively distinct types of mod + adv is a matter of degree. Modal idiomaticity should be seen as gradient along a continuum from strong association (would rather) to strong dissociation (would well). The results support assumptions that statistical information about the collocational behavior of modal auxiliaries is a cue for the scope of adverbial modification and is thus an important aspect of speakers’ knowledge of modal meaning. The study contributes to recent approaches to modality from a ‘combinatorial’ perspective, which recognizes the importance of the lexical environment in core areas of grammar.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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Footnotes

This research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF grant no. 100012L/169490/1; PI Martin Hilpert). For constructive discussions and helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, I thank Martin Hilpert, Anatol Stefanowitsch and two anonymous reviewers. The usual disclaimers apply.

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