“We may also need to look at this issue from a different angle”: the use of epistemic modality in the language of diplomats

30 May 2024
Room G1

“We may also need to look at this issue from a different angle”: the use of epistemic modality in the language of diplomats

Word Modality typically conveys the speaker’s confidence or lack of confidence in the truth of the proposition expressed (Palmer, 2001; Facchinetti, Krug & Palmer, 2003; Carter & McCarthy, 2006, among others); as such, it also accounts for the perceptions/perspectives of interlocutors in dialogical interactions (Fraser, 1980; Love & Curry, 2021). More specifically, epistemic modality refers to the linguistic expression of the interlocutor’s assessment of the likelihood, certainty, or probability of a proposition and it communicates shades of meaning. Hence, in spoken discourse epistemic modality plays a crucial role, as it allows speakers to express their perspectives and it helps listeners to understand the intended meaning behind the words.

The language choices of diplomats, who are trained to express themselves cautiously rather than forcefully, are expected to fully realise modality in its different nuances. Against this background, the present study examines the role of epistemic modality in the language of diplomats when interviewed by journalists. The corpus taken into consideration covers eighty broadcast interviews where diplomats, both native and non-native speakers of English, are interviewed in English by journalists who do not share the same lingua-cultural background on global topics, e.g. global warming and Russia-Ukraine war. Adopting both a quantitative and a qualitative approach, the aims of the study are twofold: a) identification and quantification of the modal auxiliaries most used by diplomats; b) categorization and analysis of the communicative functions conveyed by the modal utterances under scrutiny in intercultural interactions.

Data show that English epistemic modality is used by interviewees, both native and non-native, to modify the force of the message: interviewees’ opinions are often weakened by a very frequent use of modals which may describe a (quite) low degree of confidence. Modals are also marginally used to make predictions for future local/global changes in the fields of economy, health, and society. A fewer number of utterances seem to support the epistemic value of high possibility or certainty.



Carter, R., & McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press.

Facchinetti R., Krug M. & Palmer F. (Eds.). (2003). Modality in Contemporary English. Mouton de Gruyter.

Fraser, B. (1980). Conversational mitigation. Journal of Pragmatics 4(4), 341-350.

Love, R. & Curry N. (2021). Recent change in modality in informal spoken British English: 1990s–2010s. English Language & Linguistics 25(3), 537-562.

Palmer, F. (2001). Mood and Modality. (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press.