The interplay of modal verbs and adverbs

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As Hoye (1997) points out, harmonic combinations of modal verbs and modal adverbs are not uncommon in Present-Day English. The present paper explores semantic and syntactic aspects of one of such combinations, namely <i>m&#230;g</i> <i>ea&#254;e</i> &#8216;may easily&#8217;, from a diachronic perspective. The collocation is attested at the earlier stages of the development of the language, that is, in Old English and Middle English. I aim to show that as early as in Old English, the adverb <i>ea&#254;e</i> &#8216;easily&#8217; helps to reinforce possibility-based meanings of <i>m&#230;g</i> &#8216;may&#8217;, including epistemic possibility. The Middle English range of contexts in which <i>m&#230;g ea&#254;e</i> &#8216;may easily&#8217; occurs is more limited, which ultimately leads to the demise of the combination toward the end of the Middle English period. I also examine the issue of the extent to which the collocation is lexicalized in the respective periods, especially with evidence from such factors as decomposition of meaning, productivity and substitutability.


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