Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 623–664 | Cite as

The semantic roots of positive polarity: epistemic modal verbs and adverbs in English, Greek and Italian

  • Anastasia Giannakidou
  • Alda MariEmail author


Epistemic modal verbs and adverbs of necessity are claimed to be positive polarity items. We study their behavior by examining modal spread, a phenomenon that appears redundant or even anomalous, since it involves two apparent modal operators being interpreted as a single modality. We propose an analysis in which the modal adverb is an argument of the MUST modal, providing a meta-evaluation \(\mathcal {O}\) which ranks the Ideal, stereotypical worlds in the modal base as better possibilities than the Non-Ideal worlds in it. MUST and possibility modals differ in that the latter have an empty \(\mathcal {O}\), a default that can be negotiated. Languages vary in the malleability of this parameter. Positive polarity is derived as a conflict between the ranking imposed by \(\mathcal {O}\)—which requires that the Ideal worlds be better possibilities than Non-Ideal worlds—and the effect of higher negation which renders the Ideal set non-homogenous. Applying the ordering over such a non-homogeneous set would express preference towards both p and \(\lnot p \) worlds thus rendering the sentence uninformative. Negative polarity MUST and possibility modals, on the other hand, contain an empty \(\mathcal {O}\), application of higher negation therefore poses no problem. This account is the first to connect modal spread to positive polarity of necessity modals, and captures the properties of both in a unified analysis.


Positive polarity Modal spread Epistemic modality Epistemic adverbs Ordering semantics 


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No work is done in isolation, and we want to thank the many colleagues that became familiar with our work and offered us comments when we presented material related to this paper, as early as the ‘Futur dans les langues Romanes’ workshop held in Neuchâtel in 2012, the Amsterdam Colloquium in 2013, and the Linguistics and Philosophy seminar in Chicago in 2014. The specific shape of the material discussed in this paper owes a lot to the insights and advice we received from our editor Paul Portner, who went beyond the call of duty to encourage us to develop our arguments to their fullest. We are thankful for his help. Many thanks also to Jason Merchant and Hedde Zeijlstra for their suggestions on the more syntactic aspects of the paper, to Mingya Liu, Claire Beyssade and Lavi Wolf for their comments on epistemic commitment and to the anonymous reviewers of Linguistics and Philosophy for their careful reading of the paper, and for offering generously their suggestions and insights. Alda Mari gratefully thanks the ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and ANR- 10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linguistics DepartmentUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.CNRS, ENS, EHESS, PSLInstitut Jean NicodParisFrance

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