In "Distinguishing between epistemic and circumstantial readings", a circumstantial statement is mentioned as maybe having a deontic aspect, but it's not made clear (OP leaves it unresolved in their post-Q&A summary edit).

I want to know if my statement can be considered to have a deontic aspect in relation to the reader (i.e. whether linguists say it expresses obligation upon the reader by accepting the proposition or if there is another way that this is considered).

It's kind of subtle, and secondary to the main role of the sentence, but it also seems relevant to interpreting how a text 'acts' upon a reader — especially for the case of text written to inform.

I haven't found any publications which present this idea but it seems sensible: we call educational material "instructive", in the sense that it obligates its addressee to study and ultimately to learn (if the student follows the instruction, e.g. by completing the problem exercises it details).

I have been reading

  • Palmer (Mood and Modalities)
  • an article on 'deontic performatives' [speech acts giving orders and granting permission] in bureaucratic documents

I noticed how statements in such documents can have multiple modalities, as well as disguised ones.

This led me to look for deontic aspects of informative writing elsewhere.

I thought I'd ask here for some guidance if this is an accepted/acceptable way to consider the following.

Problem statement

Q: In the passage below, does the verb "is seen" have a deontic aspect?

  • in the sense that its perlocutionary effect involves persuading the reader to accept the author's premise?

    • [premise of a dichotomous reading of the observed behaviour]
  • How should I describe this aspect if so?

    • Should I say it is "within" the circumstantial scope (to indicate that the statement is primarily circumstantial)?
  • Else how might I name this aspect I'm describing (with particular relevance to educational/informative speech) and where should I locate it within the statement?


This behaviour is seen by TV viewers as either shrewd or farcical, but...


  • The behaviour in question involves gameshow contestants lying to members of the public [in The Apprentice]
  • The passage this excerpt appears in is discussing a reality TV show episode
  • This excerpt is part of an illustrative anecdote whose focus is on hollow gestures.
  • The dichotomous readings mentioned correspond to potential viewer responses in line with either:
    • 'internal' game show 'universe' norms [which condone lying as part of the game show]
    • 'external' real world norms [which forbid lying as part of trading standards]
  • The dichotomy is stated by the author so as to ensure a reader does not omit to consider the latter [farcical reading under game-external norms/prohibition to lie], i.e. to prime the reader for an upcoming critique of the realism of the 'internal' game show norms
    • If the author omitted to prime the reader to a 2nd reading in this way, the subsequent thought experiment would possibly fail (i.e. the author does so to lead the reader, or "instruct them how to think").
  • Rather than assert the dichotomous readings as the author's belief, the dichotomy is attributed in the 3rd person to "TV viewers". I.e. the author is proposing a dichotomy, but as phrased it appears the author is only observing or reporting it in others.
  • The term "TV viewers" can be replaced (with a conditional verb form) by "any reasonable observer"

A rephrasing could be made in an active form:

TV viewers see this behaviour as either shrewd or farcical

Which could be considered as having a tacit modal:

TV viewers [must] see this behaviour as either shrewd or farcical

or even more exhortatively

TV viewers [must, surely,] see this behaviour as either shrewd or farcical

As I interpret it, the phrase "is seen by" thus has a deontic aspect. The author is reporting a circumstantial fact, but by circumstance of the author's expectation of a viewer's reaction to the TV show.

Since the circumstance is a proposition, and especially as a reader may disagree with this proposition (e.g. a reader may be a TV viewer themself, and may see said behaviour in a 3rd, different, way), the proposition is more of an instruction, obligating the reader to accept it for the purpose of reading the essay's subsequent thought experiment.

  • 1
    I think this is a persuasive device, and whether it expresses deontic modality depends on your theory of how it works. If someone puts a conversation on the basis of some proposition, I'd say that by continuing to participate without challenging that proposition, you impliedly accept that it is true. Logically you might not expect that to work in a voiceover, but we’re not always very logical. If that is the mechanism then, if it is to do with linguistics at all, it is to do with pragmatics... – rchivers May 30 '20 at 10:49
  • 1
    ... but I think it’s very close to the boundary with the psychology of persuasion / influence. Maybe it could be said that the statement imposes an obligation without expressing one. – rchivers May 30 '20 at 10:49

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