Natural Language Semantics

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 117–163 | Cite as

Must, knowledge, and (in)directness

  • Daniel LassiterEmail author
Original Paper


This paper presents corpus and experimental data that problematize the traditional analysis of must as a strong necessity modal, as recently revived and defended by von Fintel and Gillies (in Nat Lang Semant 18(4):351–383, 2010). I provide naturalistic examples showing that must p can be used alongside an explicit denial of knowledge of p or certainty in p, and that it can be conjoined with an expression indicating that p is not certain or that not-p is possible. I also report the results of an experiment involving lotteries, where most participants endorsed a sentence of the form must not-p despite being instructed that p is a possibility. Crucially, endorsement was much higher for must in this context than for matched sentences with knowledge or certainty expressions. These results indicate that the requirements for felicitous use of must are weaker than for know and certain rather than being at least as strong, as the epistemic necessity theory would predict. However, it is possible to account for these data while retaining the key insights of von Fintel and Gillies’ analysis of the evidential component of must. I discuss several existing accounts that could be construed in this way and explain why none is completely satisfactory. I then propose a new model that embeds an existing scalar theory into a probabilistic model of informational dynamics structured around questions and answers.


Epistemic modality Evidentiality Knowledge Inference Probability 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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