9.1. The Modal syntax, PRESENT or PAST

Office Clocks Showing Different Times --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

We cannot really tell the notional or psychological time by the hour, especially for Modal verbs. What strategy can we develop, to tackle Modal verbs? We can use syntax. Our syntactic expansion is underlined. Our

 

PROBABILITY ― getting to the PAST time extent

 

38. Where is the handle? It MAY have broken off.

 

38. It CAN have broken off.

 

38a. It MIGHT have broken off.

 

39a. It COULD have broken off.

 

Psychologically, we can refer all these forms to the PRESENT: our theory can be the handle has broken off — maybe. The Modal form only would tell how strong we feel about the theory. We expressed probability in cubes in chapter 9: the more cubes, the more certainty we express.

 

__PRESENT field

 

The handle CAN have broken off.
4 cubes

 

The handle COULD have broken off.
3 cubes

 

The handle MAY have broken off.
2 cubes

 

The handle MIGHT have broken off.
1 cube

 

Flow of time happens to have a generalizing effect. For our psychological PAST, we would be more likely to say,

 

PAST field

 

The handle COULD have broken off.
4 cubes PAST

 

The handle MIGHT have broken off.
2 cubes PAST

 

*****

 

Some grammars exclude the verbal can have done” from advisable forms and encourage may have done”, for proper style. “Can have done” yet has considerable occurrence in contemporary American English. Languages change. A few hundred years ago, people happened to say “thou” or “thee”, where we say “you” in the singular today. Who knows how American English evolves? Some time ago, saying “you” was potentially bad English (!)

 

*****

 

Brain logic is not a form of address and it cannot depend on grammarian resolves. To decide if a syntactic strategy could help manage Modal verbs, let us think about natural language learning.

 

At some stage, children may show relativity in interpreting language. We could think about an utterance as “Jill promised Jim to smile”. If we ask a child to draw a smile on either Jill’s picture or Jim’s picture, the child may draw the smile on Jim’s picture.

 

Kids

 

At the very same stage of language progression, children may have no problems with language structures as the Passive: it might be not the Infinitive itself to be the trouble. Could the matter be in imminent tactics for auxiliary time? Please consider the following idea independently.

 

We can use virtual lexical items, to focus on syntax. A lexical item is a word or a phrase we perceive for a unit of meaning, as “to take care”, for example. A virtual lexical item has no meaning. It is just to fill a place in syntax and help learn (see the color code). We could think about a pattern as,

 

40. I remember to bimo.

 

Syntactic structure__I remember to bimo

 

We also can think about a pattern as,

 

40a. I remember to have bimoed.

 

Syntactic structure__I remember to have bimoed

 

Example 40 says we remember to do something, for example, we remember to brush our teeth every day. Example 40a says we are recalling something prior, antecedent.

 

The antecedent reference for time always would relate to the main or head time, whether the time would be PAST, PRESENT, or FUTURE. Let us use a real verb, to learn.

 

HAVE LEARNED__Always antecedent

 

Main time: the PRESENT
I REMEMBER to have learned;

 

Main time: the FUTURE
I WILL REMEMBER to have learned;

 

Main time: the PAST
I REMEMBERED to have learned.

 

Would the auxiliary HAVE make antecedent time extents generally?
I HAVE LEARNED__I MAY HAVE LEARNED

Saying we have learned, we say we began learning some time before speaking about it. Saying we may have learned, we make the learning a bit of a theory, but still, the theory would be that learning began some time before speaking about it.

 

To focus on the main time, let us compare CERTAINTY in the PAST time extent.

 

CERTAINTY ― the PAST time extent

 

If we put WILL to its PAST form, we may change the language register, not the reference in time.

 

42. These handles always WOULD break off.
(The time compass is the PAST or PRESENT.)

Orange__handle

 

Let us mind that American English uses Modal verbs extensively, for good style. The form “WOULD” does not have to imply doubt. We could see the person at the door and hear or say,
“Would this be Jim?”

 

We can try our good companion, the auxiliary HAVE.
42a. These handles always WOULD HAVE broken off.
(We can refer to a PAST time.)
5 cubes PAST

 

Let us compare other Modals.

 

43. The handle MUST have broken off.
The handle HAD TO break off.

5 cubes PAST

 

44. The handle SHOULD have broken off.
The handle OUGHT TO have broken off.

3 cubes PAST

 

45. There NEEDED TO be a handle.
4 cubes PAST

 

Modal verbs are going to behave a little different for CONTINGENCY.

 

CONTINGENCY ― the PAST time extent

 

46. You HAD TO take care of the handle.
5 cubes PAST

 

47. You SHOULD have taken care of the handle.
You OUGHT TO have taken care of the handle.
3 cubes PAST

 

48. You NEEDED TO take care of the handle.
4 cubes PAST

 

Let us now think about main time syntactically, taking the entire utterance into account.

 

41. Where is the handle? It MAY HAVE / CAN HAVE broken off.
(Finding the handle is much of an open question.)

 

Orange__handleWould oranges have handles?

 

41a. I thought the handle MIGHT HAVE / COULD HAVE broken off.
(Finding the handle was not much of an open question, in the case.)

 

Orange__No handle

 

Let us focus on the Modal form alone.

 

41b. The handle MIGHT HAVE / COULD HAVE broken off.
(Finding the handle IS NOT or WAS NOT much of an open question.)

 

The Modal form alone does not give enough guidance. We have to seek clues in our cognitive grounds. Cognitively, it can take real time to make a hypothesis, but hypothetical time never can be the same as real time. To shape up a good idea for head time and Modal verbs, we can venture time frames.

 

9-2-modal-time-frame

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