Hotze Rullman, University of British Columbia
Title: Epistemic Modality in the Scope of Past Tense
Joint work with Lisa Matthewson (UBC)
Abstract: For many years the majority opinion in the literature has been that epistemic modals cannot scope under past tense (e.g., Groenendijk & Stokhof 1975, Cinque 1999, Abraham 2001, Drubig 2001, Fagan 2001, Condoravdi 2002, Stowell 2004, Hacquard 2006, Borgonovo & Cummins 2007, Demirdache & Uribe-Etxebarria 2008, Laca 2008). This view is based largely on the claim that epistemic modals in unembedded contexts are never interpreted with a past temporal perspective (in the sense of Condoravdi 2002).
In this paper we provide data from four languages (English, Dutch, Gitksan, and St’át’imcets) to show that epistemic modals can scope under past tense. We thus join the minority of researchers who believe that past-T.P. epistemic readings are possible (e.g., Eide 2003, Boogart 2007, Martin 2009, Homer 2010, von Fintel and Gillies 2008), but unlike many of these authors, we do not explain away the readings as dependent on free indirect discourse or some other exceptional mechanism. On the contrary, we claim that the null hypothesis holds with respect to interactions between tense and the conversational backgrounds of modals: there are no grammatical constraints. In principle, any modal can have any type of conversational background, irrespective of its relation to tense.
Our analysis is a modified version of Condoravdi’s, with certain restrictions removed; we also build on insights from Abusch (2008). For English, we rely not on have optionally scoping over the modal, but on have optionally triggering the defective past tense of might. This is independently motivated by the behaviour of might and the other defective past-tense modals in sequence of tense environments (cf. Stowell 2004).