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The Pragmatics and Semantics of Counterfactual Statements

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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?