Do the following sentences have a deontic or epistemic meaning?

  • He must be studying now.
  • He mustn't be studying now.

From the Linguistic modality entry on Wikipedia:

In English as in many other languages, some of the same words are used for deontic modality as for epistemic modality, and the meaning is distinguished from context: He must be there by now (epistemic) versus He must be there tomorrow at noon (deontic).

(emphasis mine)

So each sentence could be either deontic or epistemic based on context.

  • 1
    I wonder if, with must, the progressive "studying" is used more often with the epistemic, and the bare infinitive with the deontic. I wouldn't say "She must be studying" when I meant "She should really study now, not be wasting time by watching TV."
    – TRomano
    Nov 13 '14 at 17:27
  • @TRomano still context-based. Counterexample to your example: "She must be studying by 10pm or she's grounded". Nov 13 '14 at 17:57
  • Agreed. That "by 10pm" makes all the difference.
    – TRomano
    Nov 13 '14 at 18:43
  • In BrE, the epistemic meaning of ""He can't be studying now".
    – tunny
    Nov 13 '14 at 20:26

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