As you might expect, Oasis’s 1994 debut album Definitely Maybe has got me thinking about epistemic modality. That’s because epistemic modality expresses degrees of certainty. “As you might expect…” is epistemic. It expresses how confident I am that other people think listening to Oasis makes me think about grammar (i.e. not very confident). “As you will expect…” would be more confident. But it would be misplaced. And weird: it would sound weird. But that’s not the point. The point is the degree of confidence.
Epistemic modality is expressed by modal adverbs and modal adjectives. Definitely and maybe are modal adverbs. Could, would, might and will are also modal adverbs. Words like possible and definite are modal adjectives. Collectively these words are called modal markers. The degree of certainty expressed by modal markers ranges from the non-committal shoulder-shrug of might to the chest-puffing certainty of will (or from maybe to definitely*). If I say that I might stop talking about grammar, by extension I imply that I might not stop talking about grammar. And if I tell you that I will talk about grammar, you will not invite me to social events.
Epistemic modality is very useful. Anyone who has said “I might go to the party” but does not intend to go to the party knows the value of epistemic modality. People who make New Year resolutions, and who say “this year I will start going to the gym”, learn and re-learn annually the value of epistemic modality. Horoscope writers both know the value of epistemic modality and are not afraid to use it. By God are horoscope writers not afraid to use epistemic modality:
You might find that your brain is moving in the slow lane today, Aries. It may even be creeping over to the breakdown lane. You might find that it’s a bit harder to make your witty rebuttals in conversation. Take your time and make sure you choose your words carefully. Communicating with others might be a bit like pulling teeth.
Which means as much as “definitely maybe”. It means less than “definitely maybe”: it means nothing. I might find that my brain is moving in the slow lane today. But might logically suggests might not. And what if I don’t find my brain moving in the slow lane? What if my brain’s in the fast lane? I might find that communication is teeth-pullingly frustrating. But what if communication is unusually pleasant? For the horoscope to be what it claims to be — a prediction — it needs to be epistemically stronger. “Communicating with others will be like pulling teeth” is a prediction: it states what is going to happen and not what might happen. But the horoscope writer does not say will because the horoscope writer knows that the reader can challenge will. The writer knows also that the reader can’t challenge might, that the reader can’t complain if something that might happen does not happen (“I never said conversation would be frustrating, just that it might be frustrating”, etc., etc.).
Of course, even people who read horoscopes tend not to believe them. But people believe journalists. And journalists know better than anyone the value of epistemic modality. This is why The Daily Telegraph can say “European Union exit could make British households £933 richer“, and The Guardian can say “the UK could suffer income falls of between 6.3% to 9.5% of GDP“; but we, knowing that could is epistemically weak, can say “actually, these two statements could mean nothing”.
It turns out that the statements — and their articles — really are meaningless; we only think they have meaning. We think they have meaning because they’re backed up by facts. They’re backed up by facts from sources like Business for Britain’s Change, or Go (tagline: how Britain would gain influence and prosper outside an unreformed EU) or The Centre for Economic Performance’s Brexit or Fixit? (which calls a possible EU exit “The (Conservative) dream of splendid isolation”**). To put it another way: the facts come from sources which have dubious agendas. And but the facts are not just dubious, they’re not even facts. They’re hypothetical. Which means The Telegraph’s article and The Guardian’s article really only say that hypothetical situations based on hypothetical reports could hypothetically happen. Which is to say they will “definitely maybe” happen.
But spare a final thought for politicians. Politicians speak a lot. Politicians speak a lot in an environment in which their words are turned into soundbites. These soundbites are repeated on 24-hour news channels and on the Internet. They’re transcribed in newspapers for journalists and public to pick apart. Not surprisingly, politicians say things which are banal and vague and empty of meaning — things which are difficult to pick apart. But banal and vague can sound indecisive. Banal and vague can sound evasive. And politicians can’t afford to sound indecisive and evasive***. So politicians compensate. They say will. They say will a lot. And David Cameron says things like
This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together
and nobody knows if David Cameron believes what he says or if he’s thinking only about how he sounds on TV and in print (he’s probably thinking about how he sounds on TV and in print). He’s definitely not thinking about the sense anyone can make of what he says: there’s no sense to be made. This is why will is a blessing for politicians: it makes a meaningless statement sound meaningful. And if a statement sounds meaningful, people assume it is meaningful. So few people will wonder what “turn the page” means as a statement of political intent (i.e. it means nothing). Few people will think about how “turn the page on this failed approach” is a very strange metaphor. Few people will realise that the idea of a party of one nation governing as one nation and bringing a country together is not just meaningless but nonsense. And few people will realise that David Cameron is not saying what he is going to do, only that he is going to do it. Will turns out to be a curse as well as a blessing. When David Cameron says “This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach”, the public understands the strong modality of will to constitute a promise of action. It doesn’t matter that the promise is meaningless, or that Cameron has made it only to avoid newspaper and TV criticism. It doesn’t matter that statements like “turn the page” say nothing about government intentions: the public wants Cameron to keep his promise. So when Cameron fails to make good on his meaningless promise, the public will get sceptical. And the next time a politician says will, the public will get more sceptical. So on and so forth, ad infinitum. Which explains why nobody trusts politicians.
So epistemic modality is used by sociable people who don’t want to be sociable, and it’s used by horoscope writers, journalists and politicians to say nothing about something. And this blog definitely maybe said something about epistemic modality. On that note, here’s a song about grammarians:
*if it means anything at all, “definitely maybe” means something like “I am sure that I am not sure”.
**”Brexit or Fixit?” is disingenuous because it’s not just a title, it’s also a loaded question. In a complex grammatical way that is far outside the purview of this article, the title’s question is actually asking: do you really want to leave the EU or do you just want to fix it?
***except when politicians have done something wrong, in which case being vague and evasive is usually a sound political tactic.