A systemic functional study of modal verbs in the Chinese clause
Their clausal positions and functions
Previous studies of Chinese modal verbs in the traditional framework (e.g. Lu 2004; Peng 2007; Tang 2000; Tiee 1985; Tsang 1981; Xie 2002; Xu 2007) have mainly focused on the description of semantic and syntactic features of modals that occur in the middle of the clause and attached little significance to the functions that modal verbs serve when they appear at different positions in the clause. Similarly, in a systemic functional framework, modal verbs in the middle of the clause receive the most attention. Their interpersonal functions are thoroughly explored; however, their textual functions are seldom discussed as they are believed to mainly appear in the middle of the clause buried in the Rheme rather than at the beginning or at the end of the clause. This paper examines the functions that modal verbs serve when they occur in different places in the clause from the perspective of systemic functional grammar. It argues that modal verbs are functionally motivated and the position of the modal verbs in the clause expresses particular meanings. When situated medially in the clause, modal verbs function as the Modality in the interpersonal structure of the clause, and as part of the Rheme in the thematic structure of the clause, marking the transition between Theme and Rheme. When occurring at the beginning or in the middle of the clause before a nominal group, some modal verbs of obligation serve as focus markers and identify the subsequent nominal group as the marked information focus of the clause. In the thematic structure of the clause, clause-initial modal verbs of obligation and probability function as interpersonal Themes to foreground the speaker’s modal assessment. Finally, when placed at the end of the clause, modal verbs serve either as the Predicator or Modality in the interpersonal structure of the clause and as the unmarked information focus of the clause.
Published online: 06 July 2020
Halliday, M. A. K.
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