Dynamic modality

This is expressed by such verb as intend, want, etc. As noted earlier, negation of medium modality tends to be interpreted more specifically as internal negation, e.g. I don’t want her to go as “I want her not to go”. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p208)

I understand I don’t want her to go as I don’t want the proposition that she goes. But the book seems to interpret it as I want she not goes. Does the book say that my understanding is wrong? What does the explanation mean?

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure whether you misunderstand the English expression or the book. I understand “*I don’t want the proposition that she goes” and “*I want she not goes” as expressing the same meaning, but I'm not sure about what you're trying to say with the first one because it has the same issue as the original regarding negating “I want”.

If I want her to go, I can say “I want her to go”.

If I want her to stay, I can say “I don't want her to go”. I could also say “I want her not to go”, but it's slightly awkward.

In the middle, there's the case where I'm indifferent as to whether she stays or go. In this case, I can't say “I don't want her to go”, because it's interpreted as meaning ”I want her not to go“.

To put it in a vaguely mathematical way, “I don't want her to go” is I-want(not(she-goes)). Grammatically speaking, this sentence is the negation of “I want her to go”, but semantically, it does not mean not(I-want(she-goes)). That's what the book is saying: the syntactic negation of the modality “I want” has a narrower (more specific) meaning than a literal reading would suggest.

Orally, if you emphasize the auxiliary, then the meaning shifts to not(I-want(she-goes)); this usually requires an additional confirmation or clarification. Depending on the context, this may or may not carry a slight preference for her not going.

I don't want her to go, but I'd prefer it if she did.
I don't want her to go. I thought it would help, but it's fine if she stays.

Some adverbs can convey the same impression: “I don't particularly want her to go”, “I don't particularly want her to go”. There are of course many other ways to convey indifference or a mild preference, such as “I don't mind if she goes”, “I don't care if she goes”, etc.

  • It seems OP was confused aa to whether "her to go" is actually a verb phrase or a noun phrase, and thought the book was saying it's a verb phrase. It seems to me the book takes no stance on this. Nor do I. But as a matter of practical understanding, I believe OP's original method of treating "her to go" as a proposition (i.e., a noun) is a good tactic. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 9:39

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