Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768ffcd9cc-6vg6l Total loading time: 0.286 Render date: 2022-12-06T15:25:34.736Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Beyond modal idioms and modal harmony: a corpus-based analysis of gradient idiomaticity in mod + adv collocations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2020

Institut de langue et littérature anglaises, Université de Neuchâtel, Espace Tilo-Frey 1, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland,


How do we know that would rather and may well are more idiomatic than would well or will really? Can this intuition be measured systematically in usage data? Traditionally, modal idioms such had/’d better, would/’d rather or might (as) well are seen as distinct from more compositional collocations, which may be modally harmonic (could possibly, will probably) or not (could also, might even). Yet the collocation of modal auxiliaries + adverbs (mod + adv) is more complex than suggested by a binary classification into idioms and non-idioms. This article uses data from COCA and the method of collostructional analysis to show that the difference between qualitatively distinct types of mod + adv is a matter of degree. Modal idiomaticity should be seen as gradient along a continuum from strong association (would rather) to strong dissociation (would well). The results support assumptions that statistical information about the collocational behavior of modal auxiliaries is a cue for the scope of adverbial modification and is thus an important aspect of speakers’ knowledge of modal meaning. The study contributes to recent approaches to modality from a ‘combinatorial’ perspective, which recognizes the importance of the lexical environment in core areas of grammar.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


This research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF grant no. 100012L/169490/1; PI Martin Hilpert). For constructive discussions and helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, I thank Martin Hilpert, Anatol Stefanowitsch and two anonymous reviewers. The usual disclaimers apply.


Aijmer, Karin. 2013. Analyzing modal adverbs as modal particles and discourse markers. In Degand, Liesbeth, Cornillie, Bert & Pietrandrea, Paola (eds.), Discourse markers and modal particles. Categorization and description, 89106. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Auwera, Johan van der & De Wit, Astrid. 2010. The English comparative modals: A pilot study. In Cappelle, Bert & Wada, Naoaki (eds.), Distinctions in English grammar: Offered to Renaat Declerck, 127–47. Tokyo: Kaitakusha.Google Scholar
Auwera, Johan van der, Noël, Dirk & Van linden, An. 2013. Had better, ’d better and better: Diachronic and transatlantic variation. In Marin-Arrese, Juana I., Carretero, Marta, Hita, Jorge Arús & van der Auwera, Johan (eds.), English modality: Core, periphery and evidentiality, 119–53. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.Google Scholar
Cappelle, Bert & Depraetere, Ilse. 2016a. Modal meaning in Construction Grammar. Constructions and Frames 8(1), 16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cappelle, Bert & Depraetere, Ilse. 2016b. Response to Hilpert. Constructions and Frames 8(1), 8697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Celle, Agnès. 2009. Hearsay adverbs and modality. In Salkie, Raphael, Busuttil, Pierre & van der Auwera, Johan (eds.), Modality in English: Theory and description, 269–93. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Coates, Jennifer. 1983. The semantics of the modal auxiliaries. London: Croom Helm.Google Scholar
Davies, Mark. 2008. The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 450 million words, 1990-present (mid-2015 offline version). Scholar
Declerck, Renaat. 2009. ‘Not-yet-factual at time t’: A neglected modal concept. In Salkie, Raphael, Busuttil, Pierre & van der Auwera, Johan (eds.), Modality in English: Theory and description, 3154. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Denison, David & Cort, Alison. 2010. Better as a verb. In Davidse, Kristin, Vandelanotte, Lieven & Cuyckens, Hubert (eds.), Subjectification, intersubjectification and grammaticalization, 349–84. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Depraetere, Ilse & Reed, Susan. 2006. Mood and modality in English. In Aarts, Bas & McMahon, April (eds.), The handbook of English linguistics, 269–90. Malden, MA: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ellis, Nick C. & Simpson-Vlach, Rita. 2009. Formulaic language in native speakers: Triangulating psycholinguistics, corpus linguistics, and education. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 5(1), 6178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Evert, Stefan. 2004. The statistics of word cooccurrences. Word pairs and collocations. PhD dissertation, Universität Stuttgart. Scholar
Flach, Susanne. 2017. Collostructions: An R implementation for the family of collostructional methods (version 0.1.0). Scholar
Geurts, Bart & Huitink, Janneke. 2006. Modal concord. In Dekker, Paul J. E. & Zeijlstra, Hedde H. (eds.), Concord phenomena and the syntax semantics interface, 1520. Malaga: ESSLLI.Google Scholar
Gilquin, Gaëtanelle. 2013. Making sense of collostructional analysis: On the interplay between verb senses and constructions. Constructions and Frames 5(2), 119–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldberg, Adele E. 1995. Constructions: A Construction Grammar approach to argument structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Greenbaum, Sidney. 1970. Verb-intensifier collocations in English: An experimental approach. The Hague: Mouton.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Greenbaum, Sidney. 1974. Some verb-intensifier collocations in American and British English. American Speech 49(1–2), 7989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gries, Stefan Th. 2010. Useful statistics for corpus linguistics. In Sánchez, Aquilino & Almela, Moisés (eds.), A mosaic of corpus linguistics: Selected approaches, 269–91. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
Gries, Stefan Th., Hampe, Beate & Schönefeld, Doris. 2005. Converging evidence: Bringing together experimental and corpus data on the association of verbs and constructions. Cognitive Linguistics 16(4), 635–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gries, Stefan Th. & Stefanowitsch, Anatol. 2004. Covarying collexemes in the into-causative. In Achard, Michel & Kemmer, Suzanne (eds.), Language, culture, and mind, 225–36. Stanford, CA: CSLI.Google Scholar
Grosz, Patrick. 2010. Grading modality: A new approach to modal concord and its relatives. In Prinzhorn, Martin & Zobel, Sarah (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 14, 185201. Vienna. Scholar
Halliday, M. A. K. 1970. Functional diversity in language as seen from a consideration of modality and mood in English. Foundations of Language 6(3), 322–61.Google Scholar
Hilpert, Martin. 2011. Dynamic visualizations of language change: Motion charts on the basis of bivariate and multivariate data from diachronic corpora. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 16(4), 435–61.Google Scholar
Hilpert, Martin. 2014. Construction Grammar and its application to English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
Hilpert, Martin. 2016. Change in modal meanings: Another look at the shifting collocates of may. Constructions and Frames 8(1), 6685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hoye, Leo. 1997. Adverbs and modality in English. London: Longman.Google Scholar
Huddleston, Rodney D. & Pullum, Geoffrey K. et al. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jacobson, Sven. 1975. Factors influencing the placement of English adverbs in relation to auxiliaries. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.Google Scholar
Jacobsson, Bengt. 1980. On the syntax and semantics of the modal auxiliary had better. Studia Neophilologica 52, 4753.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar, vol. I: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Langacker, Ronald W. 2000. A dynamic usage-based model. In Barlow, Michael & Kemmer, Suzanne (eds.), Usage-based models of language, 2463. Stanford, CA: CSLI.Google Scholar
Lyons, John. 1977. Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Mitchell, Keith. 2003. Had better and might as well: On the margins of modality? In Facchinetti, Roberta, Palmer, Frank & Krug, Manfred (eds.), Modality in Contemporary English, 129–50. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Nuyts, Jan. 2001. Epistemic modality, language, and conceptualization: A cognitive-pragmatic perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Palmer, F. R. 1990. Modality and the English modals, 2nd edn. London: Longman.Google Scholar
Palmer, F. R. 1995. Negation and the modals of possibility and necessity. In Bybee, Joan L. & Fleischman, Suzanne (eds.), Modality in grammar and discourse, 453–71. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perkins, Michael R. 1983. Modal expressions in English. Norwood: Ablex.Google Scholar
Simon-Vandenbergen, Anne-Marie. 2008. Almost certainly and most definitely: Degree modifiers and epistemic stance. Journal of Pragmatics 40(9), 1521–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Simon-Vandenbergen, Anne-Marie & Aijmer, Karin. 2007. The semantic field of modal certainty: A corpus-based study of English adverbs. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stefanowitsch, Anatol. 2009. Bedeutung und Gebrauch in der Konstruktionsgrammatik. Wie kompositionell sind modale Infinitive im Deutschen? Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik 37(3), 565–92.Google Scholar
Stefanowitsch, Anatol & Flach, Susanne. 2016. The corpus-based perspective on entrenchment. In Schmid, Hans-Jörg (ed.), Entrenchment and the psychology of language learning: How we reorganize and adapt linguistic knowledge, 101–27. Berlin: De Gruyter.Google Scholar
Stefanowitsch, Anatol & Gries, Stefan Th.. 2003. Collostructions: Investigating the interaction of words and constructions. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8(2), 209–43.Google Scholar
Stefanowitsch, Anatol & Gries, Stefan Th.. 2005. Covarying collexemes. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1(1), 143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2016. Do semantic modal maps have a role in a constructionalization approach to modals? Constructions and Frames 8(1), 97124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Van linden, An. 2010a. Extraposition constructions in the deontic domain: State-of-affairs (SoA)-related versus speaker-related uses. Text & Talk 30(6), 723–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Van linden, An. 2010b. The clausal complementation of good in extraposition constructions: The emergence of partially filled constructions. In Lenker, Ursula, Huber, Judith & Mailhammer, Robert (eds.), English historical linguistics 2008: Selected papers from the fifteenth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics (ICEHL 15), Munich, 24-30 August 2008, 95120. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Van linden, An. 2012. Modal adjectives: English deontic and evaluative constructions in synchrony and diachrony. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.Google Scholar
Wulff, Stefanie. 2008. Rethinking idiomaticity: A usage-based approach. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
Wulff, Stefanie. 2009. Converging evidence from corpus and experimental data to capture idiomaticity. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 5(1), 131–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Xiao, Tangjin. 2009. ‘We can probably go there’: English modal satellite adverbs and modality supplementing in discourse. Linguistics and the Human Sciences 5(3), 251–79.Google Scholar
Zeijlstra, Hedde H. 2007. Modal concord. In Friedman, Tova & Gibson, Masayuki (eds.), SALT XVII, 317–32. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Beyond modal idioms and modal harmony: a corpus-based analysis of gradient idiomaticity in mod + adv collocations
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Beyond modal idioms and modal harmony: a corpus-based analysis of gradient idiomaticity in mod + adv collocations
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Beyond modal idioms and modal harmony: a corpus-based analysis of gradient idiomaticity in mod + adv collocations
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *