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If-conditionals, modality, and Schrödinger’s cat.

Research output: Contribution to conference - Without ISBN/ISSN Conference paper

  • Costas Gabrielatos
Publication date27/11/2008
<mark>Original language</mark>English
EventMeeting of RITL Research Group (Research in Theoretical Linguistics) - Lancaster University
Duration: 27/11/2008 → …


ConferenceMeeting of RITL Research Group (Research in Theoretical Linguistics)
CityLancaster University
Period27/11/08 → …


This talk addresses the modal nature of if-conditionals. If-conditionals are seen as bipartite constructions (Fillmore 1986: 196, 1998: 36) which (a) attract modality statistically significantly above average, and (b) show a markedly higher degree of modal density than non-conditional sentences and when-constructions. The discussion will also draw on the notion of “mental spaces” (Fauconnier 1994) as adapted for conditionals by Dancygier & Sweetser (2005) To illustrate the point, I used the written BNC as a whole, as well as random samples of if-conditionals, non-conditional sentences, and when-constructions from it. These were subjected to (a) automatic and manual keyword analysis, and (b) modal density analysis (cf. Halliday’s measure of lexical density, 2004: 654-655). The keyword analysis of if-conditionals against the whole written BNC showed that the bulk of modal expressions were key in the sample (Gabrielatos 2006, 2007). Even more key modal expressions were found by comparing all if-sentences in the written BNC with that corpus as a whole. The modal density analysis revealed the following: (a) On average, each if-conditional construction has 1.13 modal expressions (discounting if); (b) in contrast, the modal density of non-conditionals and when-constructions is 0.34 and 0.4 repectively. The high modal content of if-conditionals is all the more intriguing given that they are already within the scope of the modal expression if. However, the high attraction exerted by if-conditionals to modality does not, in itself, define their modal nature. Two questions are pertinent to that nature: Can they be seen as being modalised? Can they be seen as being modal themselves? It will be shown that a remarkable characteristic of if-conditionals (and, it would seem, conditionals in general) is that they are modally dense constructions, without being either externally modalised or modal themselves. Moreover, the case will be made that if-conditional constructions are internally modalised – or self-modalised. Seen as such, if-conditional constructions can usefully be treated as the language equivalent of the box in Schrödingers’ famous thought experiment (1935, English translation by Trimmer 1980). This conception can show how the fundamental nature of if-conditionals gives rise to their different types and functions in English.