On the Event-Relativity of Modal Auxiliaries

Valentine Hacquard

Crosslinguistically, the same modal words can be used to express a wide range of interpretations. This crosslinguistic trend supports a Kratzerian analysis, where each modal has a core lexical entry and where the difference between an epistemic and a root interpretation is contextually determined. A long standing problem for such a unified account is the equally robust crosslinguistic correlation between a modal’s interpretation and its syntactic behavior: epistemics scope high (in particular higher than tense and aspect) and roots low, a fact which has led to proposals that hardwire different syntactic positions for epistemics and roots (cf. Cinque’s hierarchy). This paper argues that the range of interpretations a modal receives is even more restricted: a modal must be keyed to certain time-individual pairs, but not others. I show that this can be captured straightforwardly by minimally modifying the Kratzerian account: modals are relative to an event—rather than a world—of evaluation, which readily provides a time (the event’s running time) and (an) individual(s) (the event’s participants). I propose that this event relativity of modals can in turn explain the correlation between type of interpretation and syntactic position, without having stipulation of an interpretation-specific height for modals.