P2 Semantics and Pragmatics of Conditionals (Linguistics)

Second Funding Period: Semantics and Pragmatics of Conditionals: From Sentence to Discourse

PI: Prof. Dr. Maribel Romero, Department of Linguistics, University of Konstanz

Postdoc: Dr. Eva Csipak, Department of Linguistics, University of Konstanz

PhD: David Krassnig, Department of Linguistics, University of Konstanz

P2 investigates the division of labor between semantics and pragmatics in the interpretation of conditionals. We explore this question in three domains: at the sentence level, at the discourse level, and at the interface with epistemology.

At the sentence level, continuing the research initiated in the first funding period, we will examine the morphological composition of the full paradigm of conditional constructions, moving from the two-way distinction studied in the first phase (indicative vs. single layer subjunctive) to the complete three-way paradigm (indicative vs. single layer subjunctive vs. double layer subjunctive). We will investigate how the observed surface differences lead to the observed differences in truth and/or felicity conditions and why some kinds of conditional cancellably / uncancellably generate the information that their antecedents are false or unlikely.

At the discourse level we engage the debate over strict and variably strict analyses of conditionals. There are two arguments in favor of a strict analysis: (i) Sobel sequences and (ii) Negative Polarity Item (NPI) licensing. The strict conditional explanation of Sobel sequences has recently been challenged by a large body of data. We will pursue an explanation for conditional sequences in terms of implicatures, rhetorical relations and information structure which has the potential to explain all of the available data. von Fintel’s NPI argument for a strict analysis of conditionals relies on a widely successful generalization that explains NPI-licensing in other domains. However, the key ingredient that is added in extending the account to conditionals threatens to undermine the success of the generalization in some domains: non-adnominal only and focus-sensitive regret and surprise. We investigate how the focus-sensitivity of these constructions can be modelled while at the same time licensing NPIs as proposed in von Fintel’s analysis.

At the interface with epistemology, we study the interaction between conditionals, epistemic modals, and evidentials to develop tools that will help bridge a gap at the border between semantics and epistemology. Epistemologists are concerned with modelling how individuals should change their beliefs in the light of new information. Conditionals play a special role in such theories. However, existing theories of the dynamics of belief by epistemologists have taken conditionals to lack truth values. This raises the embedding problem: if conditionals lack truth conditions, how do we explain the interpretability of complex sentences with conditional components? We expect fruit from studying conditionals together with evidentials and epistemic modals because the members of all three classes of lexical items (i) contribute information about the likelihood of the propositions they are attached to and (ii) are syntactically embeddable, though in an interestingly restricted way.

First Funding Period: The Pragmatics and Semantics of Counterfactual Statements

PI: Prof. Dr. Maribel Romero, Department of Linguistics

Postdoc: Dr. Brian Leahy, Department of Linguistics

The first part of this project investigates the formal semantics and pragmatics of counterfactual conditionals. It uses the message of counterfactual antecedent falsity as a guiding heuristic. This message appears to be a cancellable implicature, though when certain semantic components are added to a conditional (severe tense mismatch or light negation), the implicature becomes uncancellable. The literature surrounding the derivation of that implicature is in a deeply fractured state. Entirely distinct approches are used to derive the implicature in closely related conditional structures. In some cases counterfactuality has not been analyzed as an implicature but treated as a presupposition. The goal of this project is to develop a unified and comprehensive account of the source and derivation of the implicature that also explains why that implicature is uncancellable with severe tense mismatch and light negation.

The project is articulated into three research questions. Start with the assumption that all counterfactuals have a common morphological component in virtue of which they are counterfactuals. The semantic contribution of this component and its morphological counterparts in closely related conditionals needs to be carefully described. Some counterfactuals have additional semantic components (severe tense mismatch and light negation), whose semantic structure is to be investigated. All of these components are input into a single pragmatic system that derives the implicature. But whether the implicature generated by the pragmatic system is cancellable or not varies with the extra ingredients: if the extra ingredients are present, the implicature is uncancellable. This should help us isolate the contribution of those “mystery” ingredients and thereby determine their semantic value. This approach generates a unified account of counterfactual morphology, a unified account of the derivation of antecedent falsity and explanation for why that implicature is sometimes uncancellable, and an account of the semantic contribution of severe tense mismatch and light negation.

The second part of the project investigates counterfactual donkey sentences. It examines the different readings arising from genericity. It aims for finer empirical coverage and broader theoretical implementation than is currently available in the literature. We also suspend the assumption that identifying conditionals are “donkey” sentences. The results will connect to the other projects: what forms of conditionals, and under what readings, are used in thought experiments? Can the semantic differences make methodological or epistemological differences for the results of the experiments?