How many meanings for ‘may’? The case for modal polysemy

Philosophers' Imprint 16 (2016)
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Abstract

The standard Kratzerian analysis of modal auxiliaries, such as ‘may’ and ‘can’, takes them to be univocal and context-sensitive. Our first aim is to argue for an alternative view, on which such expressions are polysemous. Our second aim is to thereby shed light on the distinction between semantic context-sensitivity and polysemy. To achieve these aims, we examine the mechanisms of polysemy and context-sensitivity and provide criteria with which they can be held apart. We apply the criteria to modal auxiliaries and show that the default hypothesis should be that they are polysemous, and not merely context-sensitive. We then respond to arguments against modal ambiguity. Finally, we show why modal polysemy has significant philosophical implications.

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Author Profiles

Barbara Vetter
Freie Universität Berlin
Emanuel Viebahn
Freie Universität Berlin

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