The Double Modal Might Could
“I might could do that.”
This expression drives non-Southerners crazy. It may be the Number One offensive expression non-Southerners hear on a regular basis. Like fingernails on a blackboard, it grates on their sensitive ears. It’s bad grammar, it’s redundant, but to the non-Southerner, the worst of it is it smacks of illiterate hillbilly-ism and nothing is more offensive to a transplant than illiterate hillbilly-isms. They don’t have such things where they came from.
Might could is what grammarians term a double modal. Modality is an indication of the “subjective attitudes and opinions of the speaker including possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency.” (says so right here) (and here). We use modal verbs every day: could, should, would, might. It is standard form to use them singularly. It is not standard form to use them in multiples, although it is a clearly entrenched pattern in some regional English dialects. Their use is common among English speakers in the American South, Northern Britain, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Caribbean, and among African Americans. Although the use of double modals is common among these English speaking groups, it’s technically incorrect to use them.
These are not folksy affectations such as dropping your g’s or deciding to pronounce it nukular. They are a nuance of language. Double modals paint a deeper shade of meaning on intentions, which makes it really too bad that they are understood by an increasingly select few. The use of double modal colloquialisms like might could, might would, and etc., is not illiterate; it is a signal that you are now embroiled in a potentially complicated conversation and you better pay attention.
For instance, if someone tells you they might could do something, it means they can probably do what you’re asking (referencing possibility, probability, obligation, or contingency above), but they’re not sure they really want to.
Consider the following example:
Party of the 1st part: “Can you do me a favor and follow me down to the Ford place so I can leave my car at the garage?”
Party of the 2nd part: (upon a brief reflection) “I might could do that. When is your appointment?”
Note the tentative quality in the response of the party of the 2nd part. It is a different kind of answer than: “Sure. No problem. When do you need to go?”
I might could do that is the polite Southern way of saying: “Oh well, I guess so. I’m sure I should/owe you a favor/am not in a position to say no, and although it is a minor imposition, I’ll do it and now that I’ve had three seconds to think about it, it’s probably no big deal.”
Southerners like to be polite. In this case I might could is politeness masking a scintilla of reluctance.
In the example of this exchange, the party of the 1st part now understands the precise nature of the feelings of the party of the 2nd part. They’ll do it, but truth be told they’d rather do something else, but they’ll do it. The party of the 1st part is now prepared to stand some appreciation for the favor; compensation for the gas, a stop for coffee, or lunch, their treat. This will be politely refused by the party of the 2nd part, because they’re doing you a favor because what are friends for, for goodness sake? In the end, lunch may be involved because it might be lunch time and there’s no reason not to eat or make an event of this outing. Each pays their own way, the pleasure of each others company being compensation enough. Under no circumstances will gas money be accepted even if offered. You’re just going across town.
Or here’s a different situation:
Your best buddy:”Hey-did you see the temperature’s going down to 78 tomorrow with hardly any humidity? I’m thinking of laying out of work and going canoeing instead. Want to go?”
You: “Hmm. I might could do that…” You might or you might not, it depends on how you feel about taking a day from work to play hooky on the lake. In the ability aspect of the double modal, it’s all in the inflection.
Hmm. I might could do that…=What time are we leaving?
Hmm. I might could do that…=Sounds tempting but it’s unlikely
Hmm. I might could do that…=Of course that sounds like fun but unlike you I have a real job so that ain’t happening
In other circumstances you may be forced to confront a task you don’t really want to be bothered with or to take care of something you’ve put off. In this situation you might should. It may or may not be necessary to preface these statements with a sigh. I might should scrub down the chairs on the porch and get all that pollen off them. I might should go to church this Sunday.
Finally we move on to the example of desire. You’re thinking you might could do something because you are tempted or intrigued or otherwise seduced by the possibilities of an experience.
I might could have a piece of pie. I might could take a nap. I might could tailgate with you on Saturday (instead of stay home and rake leaves). In this instance, if you might could it means you most definitely will.
I think I might could go to that new shop that sells the scented body oils and and risque lingerie.
Well-you might would, but you wouldn’t tell nobody.
from the desk of Paula M. Stathakis