Modal structures of political commitment

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 24 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


I. Introduction

II. Mood

III. Modality
III.1 Extrinsic modality
III.1.1 Certainty
III.1.2 Probability
III.1.3 Possibility
III.2 Intrinsic modality
III.2.1 Volition
III.2.2 Obligation and necessity
III.2.3 Intrinsic possibility, ability, permission

IV. Realisation of modal meanings

V. Text Study

VI. Results

VII. References

I. Introduction

According to Downing and Locke “[m]odality is the category by which speakers express attitudes towards the event contained in the proposition” (Downing: 1992, 381). So when it comes to analysing political commitments concerning their modal structures, this will be a question of how far the speaker commits himself[1] to the content of his speech. “[M]odality is [also] said to express a relation to reality, whereas an unmodalised declarative treats the process as reality” (Downing: 1992, 382). Especially in the field of politics, that is often regarded as a ‘game of lies and intrigues’. It is interesting to find out whether a politician really believes what he says or how he hides his real opinion behind the tools modality gives him. Modality gives us the opportunity to make an utterance sound clear and certain at first glance and it is only revealed at a closer look that the speaker is not as convinced as it seems to be.

This term paper can be divided into two parts. The first part of it will be concerned with the theory of modality. As mood is closely linked to modality, it will start with giving a short introduction to this topic. This will also be helpful for the analysis at the end of this paper. Additionally, the topic of this paper is classified to the level of interpersonal meaning, which “[…] is expressed by choices from several different areas of the language which include modality, intonation and […] ‘moods’” (Downing: 1992, 164). This emphasizes the importance of dealing with mood in this paper. For obvious reasons it will not be possible though to analyse the text in the end concerning the speaker’s intonation.

This chapter will be followed by explaining what modality is all about. The author of this term paper decided to orientate himself according to the division made by Downing and Locke, namely that of extrinsic modality on the one hand and that of instrinsic modality on the other (cf. Downing: 1992, 381-402). Most other concepts of modality by Lock, Quirk, Yule, and others can be adapted to this one, although some of them differ in their terms. Other differences will be pointed out when and where it is necessary and appropriate. It is important and essential to focus on theory in the beginning, otherwise it would be impossible to analyse the text afterwards. One cannot apply something in practice without knowing anything about its theory. The theory part will then be concluded by describing in which different ways and by which different means modality can be realised in language.

In the second part of this term paper the knowledge that has been acquired before will be applied to a speech by Tony Blair. The Prime Minister’s speech is concerned with the Hutton report that had been published shortly before this statement. It was given to the House of Commons on Wednesday 28 January 2004. Since the whole affair of the dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and whether it had been sexed up or not and the death of the weapon expert Dr David Kelly was one that still remains, despite the investigation committee by Lord Hutton, doubtful and leaves room for speculation, is suitable for the aim of this paper. There is the report that is supposed to be concerned with facts only and there are the strange circumstances under which everything happened. However, this chapter will try to find out about how far Tony Blair is convinced of what he is saying and in what degree his statement is certain at all. This analysis will be added by giving diagrams of how often the Prime Minister used certain modal verbs and structures.

II. Mood

Opinions among grammarians differ on the question of how many different kinds of moods or clause types exist. Downing and Locke speak of three: declarative, interrogative and imperative (cf. Downing: 1992, 164). The Collins grammar confirms this view (cf. Sinclair: 1990, 196), whereas Lock adds a fourth one, the exclamative mood (cf. Lock: 1996, 176). According to Downing and Locke this mood is “[…] a variation of the declarative” (Downing: 1992, 164). Eastwood does not use the term mood at all; he refers to four different sentence types: statements, questions, imperative, exclamations (cf. Eastwood: 1994, 15), but which can be applied respectively to the moods mentioned above. Altogether, it is only a question of minor differences, so that they will not be looked at any further and it will be spoken of mood or mood types in general in the following.

“These [mood types] are realised […] by the presence or absence of Subject together with the Finite element, and the order in which these occur” (Downing 1992: 164).[2] The following table (cf. Downing: 1992, 168 and Lock: 1996, 177, 179f.) gives an overview of the structure of the mood element of every single mood type, which is decisive for the mood that is intended to be expressed in contrast to the residue of the clause, which remains unchanged throughout all different mood types (cf. Downing: 1992, 167).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

This table makes it easier to spot the mood used in Blair’s speech in the analysis part.

Different moods are different syntactic categories because they differ in their syntax. This should not be mixed up with the different utterance categories that exist and which are also called illocutionary or speech acts.

Each mood type is basically associated with an illocutionary act: the declarative can be used to express a statement; the interrogative a question; the imperative a directive such as a command or request; and the exclamative an exclamation (Downing: 1992, 164).

This explains the terms Eastwood uses and that have been mentioned at the beginning of this chapter (cf. Eastwood: 1994, 15). The illocutionary acts “[…] are labels for the kinds of things we are doing when we act upon one another through language” (Lock: 1996, 174) and they are different from the syntactic category of mood.

When a syntactic mood type is used to carry out the illocutionary act typically associated with it, it is considered to be a direct illocution or direct speech act. Thus, in a direct illocution the declarative has the illocutionary force of a statement […] (Downing: 1992, 166).

So, in that case of prototypical correspondence the two categories seem to describe the same, but the next linguistic example will show the difference between the two.

(1) Why don’t we take a short break now…

This utterance is in interrogative mood, but it is probably not used for asking a question. Depending on the context it could be either a suggestion or even an order and therefore falls in the speech act category of directives (cf. Lock: 1996, 176). Apart from the prototypical relationship there are other possible combinations.

In fact, almost any illocutionary act can be realised by almost any mood structure, and almost every mood structure can carry out different illocutionary acts. When a mood structure has any other but its typical illocutionary force, we consider it an indirect illocutionary act (Downing: 1992, 166).

This has to be taken into account while analysing later on. Mood is therefore one first mean to alter the intention of an utterance.

Indirect illocutionary acts are often used and preferred for social reasons. They can make an utterance more polite. The hearer’s linguistic competence and his knowledge of the world (about social convention, etc.) are necessary to arrive at the correct interpretation of the speaker’s utterance. This process is also influenced by the situational context, the linguistic co-text and the relationship between the persons involved in the conversation. Thus, the same utterance can contain different intentions in different situations and with other persons (cf. Downing: 1992, 167).

It is not always possible to make a clear cut distinction between one type of indirect illocutionary act and another. […] This indeterminacy of pragmatic meaning is not, in general, a disadvantage, since it allows the interlocutors in a situation to negotiate the outcome of any utterance as they go along (Downing: 1992, 167).

People do not always succeed to find out about the speaker’s intention, especially the correct intention, or the utterance remains ambiguous. This can happen coincidentally or on purpose on behalf of the speaker. This is another aspect that has to be kept in mind for the text study.

III. Modality

An utterance like

(2) It’s raining.

can be called a categorical assertion. The speaker of this statement “[…] express[es] a proposition and at the same time commit[s] [himself] to the truth of that proposition” (Downing: 1992, 382). From a semantic point of view one should be able to assume that it is really raining in this situation and that the speaker is aware of this fact. Therefore he believes his own assertion to be true. No other statement can be more certain about its proposition because what the speaker says is reality. Consequently, “[…] an utterance such as It’s raining but I don’t believe it is semantically unacceptable since the second part contradicts the categorical assertion expressed in the first” (Downing: 1992, 382). In this case the speaker must have seen that it is raining and informs the hearer of it, but at the same time he neglects this fact. This simply does not make sense and is therefore a rather unusual utterance.

In contrast to that, a speaker still has the possibility to perform such illocutionary acts as

(3) It may be raining.
(4) It can’t be raining.
(5) It must be raining.

depending on the situations, in which they are uttered. In case of the fifth linguistic example the situation could be as follows: two people are sitting in a restaurant when someone comes in whose clothes are wet. Then one can deduce that it must be raining outside. The speaker only “[…] express[es] a relation with reality […]” (Downing: 1992, 382). However, one cannot be sure about this relation, but that does not matter because with such an utterance the speaker is

[…] not committing [himself] wholeheartedly to the truth of the proposition. [He is] not making a categorical assertion, but [is] rather modifying [his] commitment to some degree by expressing a judgement or assessment of the truth of the situation. This is an important choice which faces speakers every time they formulate a declarative clause: to make a categorical statement or to express less than total commitment by modalising (Downing: 1992, 382).


[1] The author of this term paper is well aware of the fact that it is not politically correct to focus only on male persons; this is only done for reasons of shortness and not to make it too complicated. Therefore it must be pointed out that in the following female persons are always included, even if it is only referred to male ones.

[2] The meaning of Subject and Finite is taken for granted by the author. For further information concerning these grammatical phenomena, have a look at Downing or Lock (for bibliographical details see chapter VII. References). This is valid for all following grammatical terms that are not directly related to the topic of this term paper and therefore not explained.


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Martin Luther University – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Modal Critical Discourse Analysis




Title: Modal structures of political commitment