Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Why Some People Say 'Might Could.' The Spanish Influence on English. Mickle Story.

Episode Summary

892. We recently got a question about why people use a type of double-verb construction, such as "We might could go to the store." We have the answer! Plus, in honor of the upcoming National Hispanic Heritage Month, we look at the influence Spanish has had on English. You probably know more Spanish words than you realize!

Episode Notes

892. We recently got a question about why people use a type of double-verb construction, such as "We might could go to the store." We have the answer! Plus, in honor of the upcoming National Hispanic Heritage Month, we look at the influence Spanish has had on English. You probably know more Spanish words than you realize!


"Double Modals" was written by Neal Whitman.
"The Spanish Influence on English" was written by Susan K. Herman

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we're going to talk about a fun southern regionalism and the influence of Spanish on English.

Modal Auxiliary Verbs

by Neal Whitman

Last week, I was a guest on the Ann Fisher show on WOSU to talk about regionalisms and someone asked about a particular kind of phrase you hear in the South that uses something called modal auxiliary verbs, and I thought it would be fun to talk about them more here. Today, we’ll start with the basics of modals, and then talk about that interesting way they're used in Southern American English. 

What Are the Auxiliary Verbs?

If you’ve listened to this podcast for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about auxiliary verbs, which also go by the less-fancy name of helping verbs. English has only a few helping verbs, and we can divide them into four groups.

One group consists of forms of "be": "am," "are," "is," "was," "were," "be," "being," and "been."

Another consists of forms of "have": "have," "has," "had," and "having."

A third category of helping verbs is forms of "do": "do," "does," and "did."

The fourth group, you may have guessed, consists of the modal auxiliary verbs, but before we talk about them, I should note that "be," "do," and "have"aren’t always helping verbs. In the sentence "Squiggly is running a marathon," the verb "is"is a helping verb, but in the sentence "Squiggly is Aardvark’s second-best friend," it’s a linking verb. (You can learn more about linking verbs inthe old “good vs. well” episode.) In the sentence "Aardvark doesn’t eat grits, and has never wanted to,"the verbs "doesn’t"and "has"are helping verbs, but in the sentence "Aardvark does crossword puzzles, and has an amazing collection of Rubik’s cubes," the verbs "does"and "has"are ordinary verbs (or as linguists call them, lexical verbs). 

What Are the Modal Auxiliary Verbs?

Now we get to move on to the modal auxiliary verbs. The most common ones are "will," "would," "shall," "should," "can," "could," "may," "might," and "must."Modal auxiliary verbs are defective—yes, that’s the actual term, "defective." It means they’re missing some forms. For example, they don’t have third-person singular present tense forms—or to put it more plainly, sentences like "he cans," "she mays," and "it woulds" are ungrammatical. They also don’t have infinitive forms, so even though it would make sense, a sentence such as "They seem to should practice more," is ungrammatical." 

Another way in which modal auxiliaries differ from lexical verbs is that their past tense forms usually don’t show past time. In fact, you might not have even realized that some modal verbs are actually past-tense forms. I didn’t, until I started taking an interest in grammar. "Will," "shall," "can," and "may" are present-tense forms. The corresponding past-tense forms are "would," "should," "could," and "might." "Must"doesn’t have a separate past tense. Of all the modal past tenses, the only one that’s used very much to refer to past time is "could," as in "When I was in high school, I could bench-press 300 pounds." 

Modal Auxiliary Verb Can Show How Likely Something Is

Instead of showing past time, past-tense modals typically perform one of two other functions. One of these functions is called modal remoteness, which is a technical term for unlikelihood. This is what you get in conditional sentences such as “If I won the lottery, I could start a new business.”

Even outside conditional sentences, past-tense modals show this kind of remoteness. For example, telling someone “She would help you” suggests that you just need to give her the word, whereas “She will help you” means it’s as good as done. 

Modal Auxiliary Verb Can Show Politeness

In a more specific kind of modal remoteness, the past tense of modal auxiliaries can show politeness. If you’re a native English speaker, you may have a gut feeling that it’s more polite to ask someone, “Could you do me a favor?” than “Canyou do me a favor?” It sounds a little less pushy. That’s because the past tense "could" presents the scenario of someone doing you a favor as less likely than the present tense "can" does. It shows that you’re not assuming the person is just naturally going to do you a favor, and in this way it conveys politeness.

Modal Auxiliary Verb Can Change to Match the Tense of Other Verbs

Aside from modal remoteness, the other function that modal past tenses perform is backshifting, or as it’s sometimes known, sequence of tenses. Suppose Squiggly says to Aardvark, “I may go skiing in November.” If Aardvark is talking to Fenster about Squiggly later, he might say, “Squiggly said he mightgo skiing in November.” The modal verb "may" gets put into the past tense "might," not to indicate past time or show modal remoteness, but just to match the past tense verb "said." Lexical verbs can backshift, too. If Aardvark tells Squiggly, “You’re my second-best friend,” and Squiggly tells Fenster about it later, he might say, “Aardvark said I was his second-best friend,” using "was" just to match the past tense verb "said."

There Are Other Modals Too 

In addition to "may," "might," "can," "could," "will," "would," "shall," "should," and "must,"there are a few fringe members of the family of modal auxiliaries. One of them is "ought," which is different from the others because it’s the only modal verb that takes an infinitive. So you can say, “We must go,” or “We should go," but if you use "ought," it’s “We ought to go.” Even further out on the fringe are some archaic uses of "need" and "dare," as in "Silly people neednot apply," and "How dare you speak to me that way?"

Sometimes People in the South Use Double Modals

Finally, let’s talk about that use of modals that,according to the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, is associated with Southern American English, as well as a few other varieties. It’s called the double modal, or multiple modal, and appears in sentences such as "We might could help you,"and "You might should apologize to him."The problem isn’t that these sentences don’t make sense. Even if you wouldn’t say these sentences yourself, you can tell that they mean the same thing as “We might be able to help you,” and “Maybe you should apologize to him.” But in Standard English, even though other helping verbs can follow a modal, modals themselves can’t. 

Although double modals certainly aren’t Standard English, and I don’t recommend using them in formal nonfiction writing, in the dialects where they are used, they are subject to the same kind of unspoken rules of grammar as any other kind of construction. For example, in a paper titled “We might should oughta take a second look at this: A syntactic re-analysis of double modals in Southern United States English,” ( Daniel Hasty summarized earlier research on double modals, and noted that only "may," "might," and "must" are used as the first modal in a double modal. In addition, citing this previous research, he described some restrictions on how you form questions with double modals. So to make a question out of the sentence "You might could go to the store for me," speakers of dialects with double modals will accept "Could you might go to the store for me?" and "Might could you go to the store for me?," but not "Might you could go to the store for me?"

So even though double modals may sound strange to you if you don't live in the South, in the communities that use them, double modals still follow specific grammar rules.

That segment was written by Neal Whitman, an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at


The Influence of Spanish on U.S. English

by Susan K. Herman

Each year, from September 15th to October 15th, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. This month recognizes the cultures, histories, languages, and contributions of those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This observance began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Johnson and was expanded to a month-long celebration by President Reagan in 1988.

To commemorate this upcoming National Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s take a look at how Spanish has influenced the English we speak in the U.S. Some of these influences may seem obvious, but some you may never have thought about.

First, it’s important to understand the scope of the Spanish language. Spanish is one of the major Romance languages, or those derived from Latin. It is spoken by 559 million people across the world, 460 million of whom are native speakers, meaning Spanish is their first language. Of all the world’s languages, Spanish has the second largest number of native speakers, behind only Mandarin Chinese. So it is only natural that Spanish influence can be heard in many languages all over the world, especially English.

This influence is particularly evident in U.S. English because of the colonization of large parts of the Americas from the late 15th to early 19th centuries. During the 1800s, as the colonizers moved westward, much of the land belonging to Mexico—namely, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Utah—became part of the U.S. Naturally, these settlers began to “borrow” words from the Spanish that was spoken there. With the Spanish-American War of 1898 and Puerto Rico becoming a U.S. territory in 1917, even more Spanish words found their way into the English spoken in the U.S.

Today in the U.S., 13% of people speak Spanish at home, making it the most common language spoken besides English. In fact, the U.S. has the second largest number of Spanish speakers in the world, behind only Mexico. The U.S. Census Department estimates that, by 2050, one in three people in the U.S. will speak Spanish, including bilingual English speakers.

So now let’s talk about how Spanish has influenced U.S. English. The most common way is through “borrowing” words. James D. Nicoll, a Canadian author, book reviewer, blogger, and columnist is quoted as saying, “,,, We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” (I should point out that this quotation has been shortened because of its “colorful” nature.)

What Nicoll was trying to say is that English loves to “steal” words from other languages and make them its own. And because of the things we'e already mentioned, that has made U.S. English and Spanish very close friends. The many words “borrowed” from Spanish can be divided into a handful of categories:

First, who can resist Taco Tuesdays? Most of us recognize words for Mexican food and drink, including:

(Why am I hungry all of a sudden?)

The U.S. also has many Spanish place names, like:

There are also lots of miscellaneous Spanish words, many of which came from the settlers’ new life in the U.S. Southwest, that have become very well known in U.S. English, including:

Some other borrowed words you may not be as familiar with are:

Next, the Spanish suffix “-ista,” is used in English to indicate a follower or devotee or something or someone. It is used for nouns and adjectives in Spanish, but almost always for nouns in English, such as:

This suffix has also been used to refer to fans of political figures or candidates, like:

Finally, some borrowed words have been adapted to English pronunciation and spelling. English is famous for doing that, too, to make words fit into its speaking and writing patterns. Notice, again, that many of these come from Western life. Some examples are:

Now, English is certainly not the only language that borrows from others. Many words that English has borrowed from Spanish originally came from other American Indian languages spoken by native populations who were conquered by the Spanish. One of those languages is Nahuatl, which has been spoken in central Mexico since at least the 7th century. Some of the words borrowed from Spanish via Nahuatl are:

Spanish has had a heavy influence on the English we speak in the U.S., and it is becoming more and more important to our culture, business, and communication every day. So take the time to learn some Spanish. You probably already know more than you think!

That segment was written by Susan K. Herman, former editor, language analyst, and language instructor for the U.S. government.

Finally, I have a familect story from Gia.

"Hey, Mignon. My name is Gia, and I'm originally from Colorado. I have a familect story that originated with my generation of my family. When I was younger, my father Mike dated a woman who had two children of her own. Over the years, her children started affectionately calling my dad Mickle, and because I was young when they started dating, I picked up this nickname as well, although for some reason my brother never did. So our father had this penchant for getting into some pretty interesting and frustrating situations. Maybe it was because of his super laid back attitude, maybe the universe just had it out for him, but throughout his life, he had quite a few interesting tales to tell, so many in fact and with such regularity, that when he would start to tell his latest story, we'd all kinda start rolling our eyes and ask, 'Oh boy, is this another Mickle story?' So that's how our familect started. My father passed away last year, but this phrase lives on in our family. Anytime we start to tell some slightly unbelievable tale of a simple acts gone inexplicably wrong, we preface it with, 'So this is a Mickle story,' and that's our familect. Thanks so much for your fabulous podcast. I really enjoy it, and I look forward to you the new episodes. Have a great day."

Thanks, Gia. Your father sounds like fun, and what a great way to remember him. Thanks for calling!

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, whose favorite new activity is country line dancing, and she's on the hunt for a good country bar that teaches dances she doesn't know. Sounds like fun!

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.