Friday, March 23, 2007

Conditional Speech Acts

Indicative conditional questions seem to make good sense, and so do subjunctive conditional questions. For instance, (1) and (2) both look fine:

(1) If it has rained today, is the pavement wet?
(2) If it were to have rained today, would the pavement be wet?

But, although indicative conditional commands seem to make good sense, subjunctive conditional commands do not. For instance, (3) looks fine but (4) does not (and I'm not even sure how to formulate (4)):

(3) If it has rained today, go and tell the weather forecasters they got it wrong.
(4) If it were to have rained today, ???

Similarly for conditional requests:

(5) If it has rained today, please will you bring me an umbrella?
(6) If it were to have rained today, ???

And for conditional promises:

(7) If it has rained today, I promise it won't rain tomorrow.
(8) If it were to have rained today, ???

What's going on? And whatever it is, does it help us understand how ordinary indicative and counterfactual conditional statements are related?


Lee Walters said...


My simple-minded response:

Counterfactuals are used in a predictive manner - C would/might happen and so can be used to predict promises or actions but not to make or command them. The presupposition that the antecedent is false reinforces this. On the assumption that ~A then the command to C is impotent. We have no use for requests and commands to do things in situations that do not (and will not) obtain.

Of course this is not entirely happy since we might think we should be able to cancel the presupposition that ~A.

This is why counterfactual questions are ok - we are asking about would be the case and this is tied to prediction.

Promises seem to be an intermediate case. I think that we can export the promise to the front of the counterfactual: I promise that: if it had rained today, then it wouldn't rain tomorrow. A reason for this is that it modifies the prediction. We can also do this with the indicative and I'm not sure that I promise if p then q = if p then I promise q. In the first case we have made a promise whereas in the second case we outline conditions under which we will make a promise, although if the antecedent is true no more needs to be done for the promise to have been made.

Also it is not clear that we cannot embed promises as the consequent of a counterfactual: if you had called me I promise I would have gone out with you. But this seems to say the same as exporting the promise to the front.

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bloggin the Question said...

Hey, fancy seeing you here Lee! Canceling presuppositions? This is how I want to talk. Anyway, can't you use "oughts" and "woulds" to do the necessary work.
4) If it were to have rained today then I would have told you to tell the forecasters they were wrong,
6) If were to have rained today then I should plead with you to bring me an umbrella"
8) If it were to have rained today, I should promise that it wouldn't be going to rain tomorrow.

It all interesting stuff. I think it is to do with the subjunctive/indicative distinction resting on the copula and tense. Because it is not an actual situation you do not actually ask, command promise anything, so direct speech is inappropriate. You (Carrie) resist indirect speech because it seems odd to report first personal speech acts that have never happened and will never happen.

bloggin the Question said...

Another thought: imagine play acting or role play. 8) would come out as:
Lets pretend that it rained today, "I promise it won't rain tomorrow" I say.
(I don't really promise this, I'm only pretending to promise it)

Andreas said...
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