Specializations > Semantics and Pragmatics

Modality and Negation


Hey there,

i am currently writing my final termpaper for my masters degree on interaction of modality and negation. However, I seem to be stuck at one point now where I could really need your help.

You mustnt read a lot of books

the task my lecturer set was: logically there are these possible negations:
It is not obligatory that you read a lot of books.
It is obligatory that you do not read a lot of books.

It is not necessarily true that you read a lot of books.
It is necessarily true that you do not read a lot of books.

I know that must takes internal negation and therefore only the two examples below in each pargraph can be right. But then I read in Palmer and Coates that there is no negative epistemic form of must and that epistemic necessity negation would rather be build with suppletive CAN.
So is it true that there is only one right interpretation or are there two possible ways, ? I need to analyse this problem in my termpaper and would be more than happy to get some help

We don't answer homework questions on this forum. The way you introduced this question, I'm not clear on the format. It sounds like this is not an individual topic research paper, but a paper topic/project assigned by the instructor. I would consider that homework. If this is your own original research, then that might be different, but in that case maybe you could pick clearer examples.

Regardless, I'll share my judgments: I'd accept either of the second readings in each pair, deontic or epistemic. However, that would be for the form "must not", which is more natural in (my) American English. "Mustn't" sounds either British or archaic/formal to me, and it's something I would never say. So I don't know if my interpretation of that contracted form is reliable. Still, I can imagine interpreting it that way.

But again, if this is an assigned topic from your teacher including that data, then there may be a "right" answer based on what your teacher said, and my comments/judgments here may be irrelevant. (Another reason that real-world data from the internet doesn't always help with homework problems.)

Thank you for your kind reply. I was only referring to my lecturer because me and him decided that I will include his examples in my research, and based on literature it is my task to say which one is the right interpretation.

OK, that's fine. (We get a lot of homework questions here, and it's important for the teachers, and for the students, that we not do homework for anyone. Background information for research papers is a different issue.)

So, yes, I would find both acceptable, with the epistemic sense along the lines of "I have observed your general ignorance, so I believe that you must not read a lot of books" (or whatever similar context would lead to an epistemic generalization of that sort). Again, with the caveat that the "mustn't" form isn't natural for me. (And that really may change the available readings for those who would use that form.)


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