Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 8 August 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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The Core Functions of the English Modals -
Speech Act Approach

Prashant Mishra , M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D.


The earlier approaches to the study of language, Structuralism and Transformational Generative Linguistics, exclusively deal with the formal and semantic aspects of language study and ignore the socio-cultural situations which govern the use of language in our daily lives. Philosophers like Searle (1969), Halliday (1970) and Leech (1983) were able to discover this leak in the earlier paradigms and contributed in different ways to the functional or pragmatic approach to the study of language.

These philosophers and linguists were of the view that when a person utters a sentence, he is not only using his vocal apparatus in speaking something but through the utterance he is also performing some communicative act; and through the communicative act, he is performing some social functions. Austin, Halliday and Leech are of the view that an utterance cannot be confined to a mere linguistic act. An utterance, according to them, is a performance of an action. Since modals represent various semantic categories like request, threat, promise, compulsion, duty and desirability, possibility etc, their semantics is often influenced by socio-cultural factors.

An attempt has been made in the present paper to apply Speech Act approach to the study of Modals. The analysis of the data reveals that modals perform various speech acts - directives, commissives, assertives and expressives and perform convivial, conflictive, collaborative and competitive functions depending on the semantic category and the social context in which they are used by the interlocutors.

Key Words: Modals, Illocutionary Act, Illocutionary Function, Pragmatics, Socio-Semantics


All the earlier approaches to the study of language confined their studies to the semantic and formal aspect of language. Traditional grammar defined some grammatical categories on the basis of their meaning and some on the basis of their forms and functions. Nouns, verbs, tense, number, gender and modals are the various grammatical categories which have been treated by using semantic criterion whereas adjectives and adverbs are the grammatical categories which have been defined using functional criterion.

Structuralists criticized the mixing of criteria by traditional grammarians and based their studies exclusively on the form of words. They completely avoided relying on semantic criterion as it was thought to be outside the scope of scientific analysis due to its arbitrariness and introspective nature. They endeavoured to make the study of language a purely objective discipline and were interested in collecting and analyzing data, classifying form of various grammatical categories and formulating general principles which could be applicable to the data of language.

Structuralists tried their best to make the study of language as scientific as it could be and rejected various notional definitions like 'noun is the name of a person, place or thing' or 'verb is a word that denotes action' given by the Traditional Grammarians. But confining the study of language to only form resulted in so many anomalies in Structural linguistics.

These anomalies in Structural Linguistics and the consequent dissatisfaction against it ultimately resulted in the publication of Noam Chomsky's book "Syntactic Structures" in 1957 which gave birth to Transformational Generative Grammar.

While Structuralism confined itself to the description of the data, Transformational Generative Grammar went a step further and took into consideration native speaker's intuitive knowledge of the language as the data. Generative linguists regarded language as a mental phenomenon which is acquired and not inherited and the data for its study is available through intuition.

Generative Grammars have attached priority to syntax and completely ignored the social aspect of language. "But by accepting ambiguity and synonymy as among the basic data of linguistics, Chomsky opened a door for semantics" (Leech 1983:2). However, Chomsky missed the important point when he confined his study only to the linguistic competence of the native speakers and refused to go beyond it.

The Speech Act Approach

Philosophers like Searle (1969), Austin (1962) and Hymes (1972) were able to discover this leak, which was a great hindrance in the way of the perfection of Chomskian paradigm. They all contributed in different ways to the functional approach to the study of language. These philosophers opposed Chomsky by charging him of ignoring the situational use of language. According to them, people use language in different types of socio-cultural situations, which govern their lives. Any approach that disregards the social aspect of language is bound to be incomplete. A person cannot become competent in the use of language unless he learns to use a language in various socio-cultural situations. The functional grammarians discovered this lacuna and tried to overcome it by incorporating in their works socio-semantic functions of speech acts. Philosophers like Austin (1962), Halliday (1970), and Leech (1983) gave momentum to the functional approach.

J.L. Austin (1962) contributed significantly to the functional paradigm by relating meaning to its illocutionary force. He believes that a person utters a sentence not only to convey something but also to perform some act. When a person utters a sentence like- 'I promise to come back within a week', he is not making a simple statement but is performing the act of promising. According to Austin, '' a complete account of the meaning of a sentence cannot be restricted to semantic analysis as these are usually understood and that they must be extended to include information about the kind of speech act involved in uttering the sentence - that is, its illocutionary force " (Boyd and Thorne1969: 58). In languages, words perform multiple functions and different functions of words are governed by different contexts in which they are uttered. Context or the underlying conditions, which are in the background and shape the utterance, often provide us clues to distinguish various functions of utterance from one another. The speech act approach developed by Austin particularly "focuses upon knowledge of underlying conditions for production and interpretation of acts through words." (Shiffrin 1994: 6).

It is very unfortunate that the term 'speech-act' is widely misunderstood. Many people believe it to be the act of vocal utterance or an act of communication through spoken language. But Austin's doctrine of speech-act "gives explicit recognition to the social or interpersonal dimension of language behaviour and provides a general framework for the discussion of the syntactic and semantic distinctions that linguists have traditionally described in terms of mood and modality" (Lyons 1977: 725).

The earlier linguists attached more importance to sentences and utterances and regarded them as the minimal unit of human communication system. Austin looked at communication system through the goal-oriented pragmatic point of view.

For example, when a person says to a stranger, "There is a dog in my house", he not only informs him about the presence of the dog in the house but also warns him never to think of trespassing his house. Austin, thus, regarded the performance of a speech act as the smallest unit of communication system.

Austin divided the speech acts into locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary.

Locutionary act refers to the utterance of a sentence with a certain sense in a context. It includes the phonetic act, the phatic act and the rhetic act. Illocutionary act is an act performed in saying something and refers to "utterances, which have a certain conventional force"(Leech1983:176). Perlocutionary act refers to the results or consequences achieved by saying something.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

A Study of Structural Duplication in Tamil and Telugu - A Doctoral Dissertation | Computational Linguistics as a Curriculum for Engineering Students in India | A Discourse Analysis of R. K. Narayan's The Man-eater of Malgudi | Sense of Place and Sense of Dislocation in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace | Teaching English Language Skills for Law - A Malaysian Case Study | Bi/Multilingualism and Issues in Management of Communication Disorders With Emphasis on Indian Perspectives | Role of English as a Tool for Communication in Tamil Society | The Frequency of the Passive in Indian English | Light Verbs in Gojri | The Core Functions of the English Modals - Speech Act Approach | Phonological Mean Length of Utterance (Pmlu) in Kannada-Speaking Children | Tolkaappiyam - Kaviraajamaarga - A Brief Note of Comparison | A Review of A Quick Guide to Postgraduate Supervision | Procedure to Develop Competency Based Self-Learning Materials | HOME PAGE of August 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Prashant Mishra, M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D.
Department of English
Government S.V. P. G. College
Neemuch 458 441
Madhya Pradesh, India

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