Recent change in modality in informal spoken British English: 1990s – 2010s

Robbie Love, Niall Curry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Studies in modality comprise a complex canon of functional, formal, sociological, and diachronic analyses of language. The current understanding of how English language speakers use modality is unclear; while some research argues that core modal auxiliaries are in decline, they are reported as increasing elsewhere. A lack of contemporary and representative spoken language data has rendered it difficult to reconcile such differing perspectives. To address this issue, this article presents a diachronic study of modality using the Spoken BNC2014 and the spoken component of the BNC1994. We investigate the frequency of core modal auxiliaries, semi-modals, and lexical modality-indicating devices (MIDs), as well as the modal functions of the core modal auxiliaries, in informal spoken British English, between the 1990s and 2010s. The results of the analysis are manifold. We find that core modal auxiliaries appear to be in decline, while semi-modals and lexical MIDs appear relatively stable. However, on a form-by-form basis, there is significant evidence of both increases and decreases in the use of individual expressions within each modal set. As a result, this study problematises form-based studies of change, and illustrates the value and coherence that functional analyses of modality can afford future work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)537 - 562
Number of pages26
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number3
Early online date29 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventCorpus Linguistics International Conference 2021 - University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
Duration: 13 Jul 2021 → …

Bibliographical note

The final publication will be available via Cambridge Journals Online


  • Core modal auxiliaries
  • Language change
  • Spoken British English
  • Spoken corpora
  • Spoken grammar


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