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Semantic Structure of the English Modals

Walter A. Cook
TESOL Quarterly
Vol. 12, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 5-15
DOI: 10.2307/3585786
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3585786
Page Count: 11
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Semantic Structure of the English Modals
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Abstract

The recognition and proper use of the meanings underlying the English modal verbs are a problem for the student of English as a foreign language even in relatively advanced stages. The problem lies not in the surface positioning of the modals nor in their wide range of meanings, but in associating the right modal with the right meaning. Current research in generative semantics attempts to sketch the logical structures underlying English sentences. The structure is expressed in terms of a central verb and the nouns which accompany it. Tense, negatives, and the modals are added to the structure as higher predicates. These structures reveal differences in the modals. Research on the semantic structure of the modals asks the following questions: (1) Is the modal an epistemic or a root modal? (2) Is the negation of the modal external or internal? (3) Does syntactic past tense coincide with semantic past tense? (4) What kind of a sentence-state, process, or action-does the modal have within its scope? This research deals with the structure of English. It is relevant for the teacher of English in determining what is the content which must be taught. Content is prior to method. Before a teacher can be effective, the teacher must have a thorough understanding of what is to be taught. Only then can the teacher decide what is the best method for communicating what is known about the structure of the language.

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