Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have a friend from the southern U.S. who uses the phrase “might could” quite often. He’ll say, for example:

I might could do that this weekend.

When I first heard him say this, it made me do a double-take. I wasn’t sure whether it’s incorrect, or correct but just not idiomatic outside the southern U.S.

share|improve this question
2  
Another very useful double modal: might oughta, as in, "You might oughta do that." –  moioci Sep 19 '10 at 14:40
    
@moioci: For some reason, "might ought to" doesn't sound nearly as stilted as "might could", though it might be my accent not liking the "-t c-". –  Jon Purdy Oct 2 '10 at 15:01
    
Apparently, this is very common in the north of Britain and elsewhere. See the references given in my answer below. –  tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 15:22
add comment

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

This is a construction that is restricted to certain dialects of US English. In Standard English, it is not grammatical. (This construction is also often stigmatized, which means you would want to be especially careful before using it — you could be judged!)

However, this construction is used systematically in certain dialects of American English. To describe it clearly, I want to define a few linguistic terms I will use to sort out a crucial three-way distinction:

  • grammatical: A usage is systematic and acceptable within a certain dialect, standard or not. (Often, "grammatical" is used outside of linguistics as shorthand for "used in Standard English". Note that the linguistic definition is broader than the layman's definition!)
  • speech error: In contrast to grammatical statements, speech errors are random and unpredictable.
  • standard: This usage is grammatical in a standard form of English.

People who use this "might could" construction are not making a speech error — within this dialect, it is grammatical. Informally, this is used throughout the southern US, but has not spread to any other region I am aware of. Interestingly, it so happens that the same construction is standard in German.

A description of how this works:

What is going on in "might could" constructions is a process called "modal stacking", where multiple modal verbs (e.g. "could", "should", "might", "would", etc.) can be stacked on top of each other. Each added modal verb contributes towards the overall meaning of the sentence. In Standard English, to convey the same meaning, we have to use another construction:

I might could do that. --> I might be able to do that.

We are doing effectively the same thing in standard English in terms of semantics, it's just that we have to change things around to get around a syntactic restriction.

These constructions are not redundant by definition (they are only redundant if you stack them redundantly!). Neither "I might do that" nor "I could do that" would have the same meaning as "I might could do that".

Other constructions include:

  • I might should do that. (= "Maybe I should do that")

  • I used to could do that. (= "I used to be able to do that")

To sum up:

Modal stacking is not sloppy, meaningless, or redundant; linguistically, it is a systematic process (which I think is really cool!). It is just non-standard in English — something one would avoid using outside of this particular dialect group, especially because (like many features of Southern English) it carries a certain stigma outside of where it is used. But within that group, it is a productive and useful construction.


(This answer has been edited to clarify my use of "grammaticality".)

share|improve this answer
4  
This comment is getting off-topic, but since you mentioned German, I will add that modal stacking is not only common there, but doesn't really have an upper limit, though constructions with more than four modal verbs are seldom. "Ich sollte können dürfen müssen" ("I should ought may can") is something a German would say without hesitation. –  RegDwigнt Sep 18 '10 at 23:08
    
This construction is certainly not valid in British English. In other dialects, I'm sure it varies. –  Noldorin Sep 19 '10 at 14:38
    
Informative answer, but why is "restricted to certain dialects of US English" (and considered ungrammatical elsewhere) not ungrammatical? [BTW, I think it's implicit that "grammatical" means "according to the grammar of standard English"; otherwise every construction is grammatical in the grammar of those who use the construction.] –  ShreevatsaR Sep 20 '10 at 7:00
4  
@ShreevatsaR: With your definition of grammaticality (which is not what linguists use), you lose a level of descriptive power. People do, in fact, make speech errors that are ungrammatical; non-native speakers also create ungrammatical sentences. It is useful to distinguish these types of errors, which are random, from systematic, linguistically well-formed structures used by a large population that just happen to not be the standard. –  Kosmonaut Sep 20 '10 at 11:43
1  
No, there's nothing to add; thanks for making the change, and +1. (Yes, "ungrammatical" was the confusing part... the first two sentences seemed to say "only the southern US people say this in practice, even though it's grammatical which means that it's in principle acceptable everywhere". Now that's cleared up.) –  ShreevatsaR Sep 20 '10 at 18:20
show 8 more comments

No, it is not a valid grammatical construction, but it is (as I understand) fairly common in the Southern US. The reason for this is because both are verbs, and unless one of them is a linking verb, you cannot have two verbs next to each other. In addition, the usage is redundant:

Could - Used to show the possibility that something might happen.
Might - Used to indicate conditional or possible actions.

It would be like trying to say "the cat feline" or "he ate consumed food".


Regretablly, I must disagree with Kosmonaut's response. Although I accept that it is used in several(?) dialects of English, that does not make it a "correct construction" in English in general. Considering that the question referred to English as a whole, I must maintain that because it is not considered valid in most regions, then we cannot put forward that it is a valid construction. Furthermore, (and as a side note), I fail to see how it being valid in German has any bearing on the subject. For example, in Latin, the phrase "Ad Roma aquam portat." is perfectly valid, but to say "To Rome the water he carries" is awkward at best.

share|improve this answer
1  
thanks, might be good to add why it's not a valid construction. –  Doug T. Sep 18 '10 at 20:50
10  
It is a valid grammatical construction, it is just not a standard grammatical construction. In German, for example, it is a standard grammatical construction. In dialects that do not have this construction, the reason it is not grammatical is not because you can't have two verbs next to each other ("might go" is fine of course). And if you ask any Southerner if there is a difference between saying "could do that" and "might could do that", they will all tell you that there clearly is a difference. –  Kosmonaut Sep 18 '10 at 21:17
    
@Kosmonaut I have responded to you in an edit. –  waiwai933 Sep 19 '10 at 5:47
5  
Your definition of "correct" is provincial. If there exists a significant linguistic community that uses a construction, understands its meaning, applies it in a consistent, understood manner that is distinct from similar constructions, then you ain't got no right to claim it "invalid". Saying "I don't like it" is more accurate. –  msw Sep 19 '10 at 8:53
    
"Although I accept that it is used in several(?) dialects of English, that does not make it a "correct construction" in English in general." That makes it non-standard, which is how I characterized it. Anyone intending to use Standard English would avoid it. There is a big difference between valid and standard. If someone asked if "learnt" is a valid word, we would talk about British and English differences; this is no different here, except now I am addressing a standard and a dialect. Compare that to "I could to go shopping" which is simply ungrammatical in English. –  Kosmonaut Sep 19 '10 at 12:13
show 4 more comments

I wasn't sure, though, if its incorrect or correct but just not idiomatic outside the southern US.

This construction would be considered incorrect (a grammatical mistake) in most varieties of English.

share|improve this answer
7  
I upvoted both your and Kosmonaut's answer, as they are both right. As he says, it's not ungrammatical (linguistically speaking), just non-standard. As you say, it's considered incorrect in most varities. I really don't see much reason here to get upset, let alone declare that "there's no hope" for this site. –  Jonik Sep 19 '10 at 12:25
    
@Jonik There’s something wrong with saying it’s “not correct linguistically speaking”. A linguist doesn’t really recognize “correctness”; he merely describes actual usage. A grammarian might prescribe against it, but that isn’t linguistics. –  tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 15:37
    
@tchrist: Yes, that sounds about right, but I don't how see how it relates to my comment. Maybe you misread what I wrote. (I never used the phrase you object to.) –  Jonik Jun 10 '12 at 20:00
add comment

Harvard's Dialect Survey had the question,

Modals are words like "can," "could," "might," "ought to," and so on. Can you use more than one modal at a time? (e.g., "I might could do that" to mean "I might be able to do that"; or "I used to could do that" to mean "I used to be able to do that")

Here's the geographic distribution of their results from 10,739 American respondents:

http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_53.html
http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_53.html

share|improve this answer
add comment

Although double modals are not “standard” written English outside of “dialect” writing, they are common enough, particularly in the north of Britain and in some parts of North America. Perhaps the best reference is the chapter on “The English double modals” in Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions (ed. Jacek Fisiak; Mouton De Gruyter, August 1995), where on page 209 it reads in part:

The historical home of the current “double modals” would appear to be in Scotland and Scot English (Montgomery 1989) since Scots speakers settled in great inumber in northern Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, and later generations migrated from there to the American south. [...] The double modals [that] have begun to emerge from the dialect literature in the last decade or so have begun to receive some attention by investigators working in the programmatic frameworks that they apparently threaten.

There is a great deal more of interest to the topic immediately following that. It’s interesting that they remark above that the usage has begun to emerge “from the dialect literature”, presumably into the main stream of standard writing. This Google n-gram shows that “might could” in particular is growing:

enter image description here

Note that I have not accounted for any noun uses of might in the n-gram above, such as “political might could” or “military might should”. Googling The Economist or the New York Times for double modals turns up plenty of false positives of that particular sort, so the previous n-gram alone should not be taken as actual proof of anything. It is perfectly possible that (say for example) “military might” is simply becoming a more common topic of discussion, so further work would be needed to winnow out any actual evidence from such results.

Another source attesting to the use of double modals in Modern Scots is A.J. Aitken in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford University Press 1992. p.896).

Finally, this source argues that this is not an “illiterate” use:

The use of the double modal is definitely not "illiterate," but rather typical of regional dialect. It just happens to be largely, if not exclusively, confined to spoken language or reported speech, which says more about the intolerance of dialectal forms in "standard" written English than it does about the education level of the speaker. It's generally true that more educated Southerners tend to avoid this construction, but that's due to a prejudice of perception, not to any inherent inferiority of the use.

In fact, I doubt whether the most common double modals, "might need to" and "might've used to," would clang in most English speakers' ears. However, this dialectal use is indeed mostly concentrated in the South and South Midland, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which also gives the following complete list of actually occurring forms, which I think is surprisingly varied:

may could, may can, may will, may shall, may should, may supposed to, might could, might oughta, might can, might should, might would, might better, might had better, may used to, might supposed to, might've used to, may need to, and might woulda had oughta (the last four are listed with no intervening punctuation; I don't know if it's a typo or not).

The use of most double modals is fading in the more northern reaches of its original range, which used to extend as far as the Pennsylvania German community. Most commonly, the may/might element takes the place of the adverb probably; in other cases, it's the can/could element that is substituted for be able to. Actually, many of the forms cited in DARE are not double modals, but examples of the way that might is being directly substituted for "probably," such as "might better" (you probably [had] better) and "might supposed to" (you are probably supposed to).

Double modals are quite common in Northern English (that's England English) and Scots. The settlement patterns of people of Scottish ancestry in the southern U.S. might would account for the concentration of the usage there.

In summary, I don’t think one can answer the question of whether might could is a “correct” construction. All we can say is that some speakers consider it grammatical, and others do not.

Personally, I myself would avoid it in formal prose or formal speech, because I do not perceive it to be part of the higher registers of spoken or written English. Nevertheless, it is perfectly common (and therefore grammatical) for many speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, and I would not hesitate to use a double modal in casual and colloquial registers. I rather like the construct, to be honest; it has a certain parsimony of phrasing that I appreciate, and it imparts a certain folksy tone to one’s words that may (or may not) come in handy.

It also seems to be on the increase. I’m not one to speculate why this might be, but the initial reference work I gave [Fisiak 1995] would seem to be the place to go to delve more deeply into that sort of question, perhaps with supporting evidence from DARE.

share|improve this answer
    
I vote +1, as I promised. :) –  Elberich Schneider Jun 10 '12 at 15:27
add comment

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 10 '12 at 14:12

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.