The semantic anatomy of conditional sentences


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Title The semantic anatomy of conditional sentences
Period 02 / 2011 - 01 / 2015
Status Current
Research number OND1341785
Data Supplier NWO


The meaning of conditional sentences, i.e. sentence of the form 'if A is the case, then B will be the case', bears an intrinsic relation to a number of central scientific problems, like the nature of reasoning, the possibility of knowledge, and the status of laws of nature. Therefore, this topic always has fascinated thinkers from various disciplines: philosophy, logic, psychology and others. But while this has led to an enormous body of expertise on the meaning of conditionals in abstracto, it has only poorly been studied how the meaning of these sentences is related to the concrete form of conditionals in the languages of the world. In recent years we can observe a growing interest in this linguistic question. Nearly all attempts to answer this question made so far build on an extremely popular interpretation principle for conditionals known as the modal approach. But the modal approach postulates a general mismatch between the form of conditionals (what you see) and their meaning (what you get). This leads to various descriptive problems. The goal of this project is to open new perspectives by developing an alternative to the modal approach, i.e. by developing a general and formally precise compositional semantics of conditionals. The driving idea behind the project is to restore a direct form-meaning correspondence for the semantics of conditionals: what you see is what you get! Contra to the modal approach, this idea predicts that conditionals are surprisingly plain constructions: the if-clause introduces a hypothetical situation; the then-clause makes an ordinary statement about this situation. To establish this very intuitive approach the project will combine expertise on the meaning of conditionals in abstracto with a cross-linguistic investigation into the syntactic make-up of conditionals. The proposal will be tested via application to the descriptive problems of the modal approach.

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Project leader Dr. K. Schulz

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