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Thursday, February 12, 2009

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"But a professional writer friend considers them bad English. His claim is that 'might' has only epistemic uses in correct English. Is my friend right?"
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I am not a professional philosopher, but I am not able to get my head around why anyone would think that "might" is an epistemic term. It simply seems obvious to me that "might" refers to contingency, which pertains to metaphysics much more than epistemology.

I fear that I am seriously missing something, as the case seems an obvious one. Nothing worthy of a blog post is that obvious, so what am I missing?

Kevin,

You are missing something. Many if not most uses of 'might' are epistemic. Suppose a soldier is going into battle tonight. He has a lawyer draw up a quick will with the explanation 'I might not be around tomorrow.' 'Might' in this use expresses epistemic possibility. The soldier is expressing the idea that, for all he knows, he will not be returning from the battle alive.

'I wonder where my keys are; I might have left them in the office.' The idea here is that the proposition *I left my keys in the office* is possibly true for all the speaker knows.

Hi Bill. As neither a professional writer nor a professional philosopher, but an amateur in both disciplines, I find myself in principled agreement with your friend, and in practical agreement with you. I'd say that "might" is still most correctly used epistemically; however, English is by nature a flexible language which—regardless of the consternation of purists—is being constantly adapted to use existing words in new ways. The continual verbification of nouns is a great example.

I wouldn't immediately notice anything wrong with saying that you might not have existed. But on closer examination and reflection I would be inclined to say that, although I have no problem with you saying it that way, I myself would say either:

1. I could perhaps not have existed; or
2. I may not have existed.

I would favor (2) for its simplicity. And I would flick your friend's ear for trying to stringently grammatical in a language which defies stringent grammar. That's the second sentence I've started with a conjunction, for example, and I don't consider it wrong—aesthetics or emphasis can trump the ordinary rules of grammar just as much as philosophical clarity. My ending a sentence in a preposition for the sake of flow isn't even unheard of. Maybe your friend should learn French.

Regards,
Bnonn

Ironically, looking at (2) now, I want to rephrase it again:

2*. I may have not existed.

This seems, to my mind, the perfect balance between grammar, aesthetics, and philosophical precision.

Bill,

Thanks. I see what he is getting at now. "Might not be around," is taken to signify an indeterminacy in knowledge of whether he will be around.

But I still see this as a strange use of the word "might," and one that does not accord with the way most people seem to use it.

When I say that I might not be around tomorrow, I am not only referring to the epistemic indeterminacy, but more importantly, to the metaphysical indeterminacy. One might best express this by saying: "Tomorrow, the world may not have me in it." It is expressing a metaphysical contingency first and (I suspect) only an epistemic contingency ("I am not sure whether I will be around,") after.

So, if I say, "Bill might respond to this post but might not," I am first and foremost stating something about whether or not it is plausible that you may or may not respond. Only secondarily am I saying something about whether I think you may or may not respond.

I can see where your friend is going, but think he is taking a rather strangely limited view of "might"'s potential.

Hi Bnonn,

Good comments. I was amused by "The continual verbification of nouns is a great example." That very sentence contains an example of what the sentence is about.

I consider myself a linguistic conservative, but not a hidebound linguistic conservative. Here is an example. The correct spelling of 'tranquillity' is just as I have spelled it. But what work does that second 'l' do? No work. It is there because of the Latin tranquillitas. So if the second 'l' were to fall into desuetude, I would not make too much of a stink, though as a conservative I am averse tochange for the mere sake of change. But when people fail to observe the distinction between the subjunctive and indicative moods, that is a more serious matter. For that is a logical distinction antecedent to natural language.

I am a prescriptivist, but my friend could be even more of one that I am. He could say to me: 'Yes, there are in fact non-epistemic uses of 'might,' but there ought not be. One issue is whether everything I want and need to say with the non-epistemic 'might' could be said with 'could' or some other word of ordinary language.

There is also the question of the source of the prescription if one is a prescriptivist. Can't be usage; must be logic and ontology. But I don't have the time to explain that. Consider 'she' used gender neutrally. That contravenes old-time usage and smacks of Political Correctness, which I despise; but, logically, if 'he' can be used gender-neutrally, why not 'she'?

You suggest: 2*. I may have not existed.

I'm sorry, but to my American ear that is so far from any idiom known to me that I think it would fail to communicate the proposition I wish to communicate. 'I could not have existed' is better, except that it suggests an ability to not exist, which is not the idea.

That very sentence contains an example of what the sentence is about.
I'm a clever fellow, aren't I. Notice also that my sentence about ending sentences in prepositions itself ends in a preposition. Truly I am more than half a wit.

I tend to agree with you regarding not changing for the sake of change; but I do prefer to adopt the option which seems most sensible. For example, although "awesome" is a compound word, it seems to me that the "e" does no work in modern English, and so I habitually spell it by the fairly uncommon variant "awsome". I also prefer US spelling, despite being a South African living in New Zealand (both Commonwealth countries of course), since it doesn't contain any odd French accretions which are incongruent with the original Latin roots; American English is more simple and consistent.

There is also the question of the source of the prescription if one is a prescriptivist. Can't be usage; must be logic and ontology. But I don't have the time to explain that. Consider 'she' used gender neutrally. That contravenes old-time usage and smacks of Political Correctness, which I despise; but, logically, if 'he' can be used gender-neutrally, why not 'she'?
Indeed. I don't have a problem, in principle, with "she" as a gender-neutral pronoun. What I do have a problem with is people using it just because they're feminists and think that "he" is somehow sexist. I myself have used "she" in the past to differentiate the gender-neutral Christian ("she") from God ("he"). This is an obvious case where "she" is employed for a good and useful purpose rather than to merely make a statement.
You suggest: 2*. I may have not existed.

I'm sorry, but to my American ear that is so far from any idiom known to me that I think it would fail to communicate the proposition I wish to communicate. 'I could not have existed' is better, except that it suggests an ability to not exist, which is not the idea.


I must confess that surprises me. I don't consider myself greatly familiar with American idioms, but certainly I speak to many Americans online routinely, read American blogs, and watch plenty of American television and movies. I'd never have suspected that "I may not have existed" would fail to relay the proposition I intended—I'd have accepted that it would sound perhaps odder to you than to me, but for it to completely fail surprises me. What would you take it to mean?

That said, your proposal of "I could not have existed" sounds to me not merely like it implies an ability to not have existed, but a counterfactual necessity of non-existence. For example, I might say that, if my parents had never been born, "I could not have existed." A strange animal, English.

Regards,
Bnonn

Bnonn writes, "Indeed. I don't have a problem, in principle, with 'she' as a gender-neutral pronoun. What I do have a problem with is people using it just because they're feminists and think that 'he' is somehow sexist."

That's exactly what I would say. There is nothing sexist about 'he' used gender-neutrally, and if there were, then it would be equally sexist to use 'she' gender-neutrally. And there is nothing sexist about 'man' used to refer to human beings. Ayn Rand uses it often. Standard English certainly did not keep her down!

On the other hand, I sympathize with women who feel that 'he' slights them in the way that 'coed' slights them, and so I have no objection to their use of alternative expressions.

Bill, to my ear your (e) though (g) do not mean the same thing that (c) does. To my ear, (c) means "it is possible that I not exists" while (e)-(g) mean "it is not possible that I exist". I would propose instead: (e2) 'I could have not existed now' and (g2) 'I can have not existed now'. (although (g2) is arguably ungrammatical due to misuse of verb tense).

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