Needs Must

“If people did not sometimes do silly things,
nothing intelligent would ever get done”
- Ludwig Wittgenstein

The man in overalls did indeed have a moustache, and I did show him and his cute trainee into the basement.

And out again. Oh well.

It's Cunning Linguist time again. How would you explain the meaning of this sentence?

"Today must be Sunday."

I'd gloss it something like: "Given the available evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that this day is a Sunday".

The evidence might be that yesterday I went out for a drink with a certain friend who I usually see on Saturdays, that the newsagent at the end of the street is closed (and I've only seen that happen on Sundays), and there's a trailer on TV for a show in an hour that I know broadcasts on Sundays. You might think this evidence is absolutely conclusive, but if there weren't some tiny room for doubt, I wouldn't say "Today must be Sunday" - I'd say "Today is Sunday".

There's lots of sentences like this - "You must be soaked (because you've been out in heavy rain)", "I must be dreaming (because unless the last decade has been an illusion, my grandfather is dead so isn't lecturing me about turnips)", and "He must be mad (because sane people don't vote Conservative)."

But hang on a moment. Doesn't the auxilary verb "must" indicate strong obligation? As in sentences like "I must go now (because I have a promise to keep" and "You must believe me (because if you don't believe my story about alien abduction, they're going to take over the world"?

well yes, but it's also sometimes used in some hyperbolic speech to indicate stong desire, as in "I simply must have that new fur coat" or "There must be something good on one of the cable channels" - even though there's no one forcing you to buy the coat, and you wouldn't be that surprised if you found nothing good on TV after all.

And sometimes there's a conditional colouration, as in "We must eat to live" (meaning we might eat and still die, but we'll definitely die if we don't eat) and "You must dress nicely if you want that man you fancy to notice you" (similarly hinting that he might not notice you anyway).

So, the word "must" does quite a lot of work. But what about the opposite of the original sentence - "Today can't be Sunday"?

Here, "can't" means that the available evidence suggests that it is impossible for today to be Sunday, though there is the tiniest possibility of the evidence being wrong.

Right, so "can't" sometimes has the opposite meaning to "must", but "can" never has the opposite meaning to "musn't". Which is all a bit wierd, really.

Anyway, I didn't have to go into that much detail for yesterday's exam and interview.

And then answer two much more difficult questions: "Why do you want to be a teacher?" and "Why do you think you'd be a good teacher?".

Short answers: (1) I want to see the world before someone destroys it, and (2) I've had two decades practice.

International House have a nice little moneymaking scheme - I pay them to spend a solid month (including weekeneds) practicing my teaching on students. And students pay them to be taught by me.

I passed the interview, by the way. I start on October 1st.


  1. Yay! Congratulations mon ami. Though nearly two thousand sovs seems a lot of wonga to do what you do so well anyway ....

    Cheaper to spend a day making up an attractive TEFL certificate on your computer. From the KAP School of English Inc. Naturally.


  2. Honestly, I skipped around half your post because it was going over my head. *sigh* I think we need to go back to clicks, snorts and grunts. That's not being conservative. It's regressive. :)

  3. Congratulations, dear Kapitano! I knew it! I'm very happy for you! But you know that already!
    (I'll be back to you «otherwise».)
    Hugs! :-)