I am learning English grammar. Having been confused about modal usage, I decided to pick out a book on the subject, coming to "Modality and the English Modals" by F. R. Palmer. In chapter 2 of the book I met a seemingly open (claimed by the author) question, which is the topic of this post. (This background section should reflect the fact that my knowledge in linguistics is very nearly zero, if not absolutely.)


Where the author talks about the usage of modals for unreal contexts, he/she mentions,

The relation between these unreal forms and the past tense forms has been a subject of some discussion. Traditional grammar saw no problem and simply treated them as different - as 'subjunctive', but modern scholars have asked why the same forms are used for what seem to be two apparently quite different purposes.

Then he/she adds two answers, which seem to be unsatisfactory to the author,

Joos (1964: 121) described both uses as 'remote', one remote in time, the other remote in reality. This is not really an explanation, but really the use of a common label for two otherwise different phenomena. Perkins (1982: 50-6) calls the forms 'secondary modals', and, while pointing out that they can be used for hypothesis, temporal reference, formality, politeness, tentativeness and indirectness, suggests that they can all be subsumed under 'conditional'. Thus the past tense use of would is 'conditioned' by the past environment, and its use in reported speech 'conditioned' by 'he said' etc. But this sense of 'conditional' has little in common with the true conditional of hypothesis, and it must be concluded that Perkins, like Joos, is merely 'explaining' by the use of common terminology. Nevertheless a problem remains, because many languages use past tense forms for similar purposes, and it would seem that there ought to be a reason.

Regarding the last sentence above, I guess that there is yet not a satisfactory answer among scholars for this seemingly open question. After pondering the issue, I came to a thought, which I will share here to receive feedback from linguistics experts.

My Thought

I think the use of the past tense forms for unreal contexts was rooted in either of the following points:

  • Thinking of unreal situations, that is, imagination, is very similar to dreaming. In fact, when one deeply is imagining (or dreaming) something, he/she is usually unconscious of the action itself, that is, imagination (dreaming) until/unless he/she wakes up. So, after waking up, to express the imagination, the speaker should likely use the past tense forms as if he/she is reporting a past event.
  • Both unreal and past situations are similar in that there can be no external agent controlling them, meaning that no action from any agent could affect either an imagined situation or a past event.


Regarding the points mentioned above, the following two questions arise:

First, what is the current status of the controversial issue among linguistics scholars?

Second, can my thought be regarded as a resolution to the controversial issue?



Your Answer

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