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Conditionals and Prediction: Time, Knowledge, and Causation in Conditional Constructions.

Barbara Dancygier: Conditionals and Prediction: Time, Knowledge, and Causation in Conditional Constructions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x + 214 pp.

The principal theses of this book are that (i) "it is possible to offer a general and motivated account of the full range of conditional constructions"; (ii) "among the various uses of a [conditional] construction some are more central while others more peripheral"; (iii) "the peripheral uses of the [conditional] construction bear some relation to the core"; (iv) "the more central the use of the [conditional] construction the greater the reliance on conventional meaning"; and (v) "the more peripheral the use of the [conditional] construction the greater the reliance on the (dynamically constructed) context" (p. 10). The author adds, specifically with reference to theses (iv) and (v),

I will rely on the constructional approach in looking for meaning correlates of aspects of conditional form and on the inference-in-context approach (following workers in Relevance Theory) in accounting for contextually determined aspects of conditional interpretations (p. 10).

So, and this is the theme that provides the conceptual coherence of the main argument, construction grammar (e.g. Fillmore 1988; Fillmore et al. 1988; Kay and Fillmore 1999) meets relevance theory (e.g. Sperber and Wilson 1995) in an effort to reduce the resistance that conditionals have for too long shown to proper and adequate analytic discipline. The conjunction is not without some modest interest, but, to anticipate a little the conclusion of this review, this new merger of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic paradigms does not advance our understanding of conditionals very much.

The elaboration of theses (ii) and (iii) provides the book with its secondary argument. Dancygier here exploits some claims in one version of cognitive linguistics (Sweetser 1990). The specific claims are that (a) there are three cognitive domains -- the content domain, the epistemic domain, and the speech-act domain; (b) in the content domain there is a causal relation between the events and situations described by the antecedent and consequent of a conditional; (c) in the epistemic domain there is an inferential relation between what is assumed in the antecedent of a conditional and what is concluded in its consequent; (d) in the speech-act domain there is an "appropriacy" relation between the antecedent and consequent. Claims (b)-(d) are illustrated in (1)-(3):
(1) Content domain:
 If it is raining then the streets will be wet.

(2) Epistemic domain:
 If the lights are on then he will be at home.

(3) Speech-act domain:
 If you wouldn't mind, please sit here.

These claims allow Dancygier to follow Sweetser (and others) in asserting the hypothesis that

... meaning is extended from concrete relations such as real-world causality to more abstract and "subjective" relations such as logical [inferential] and speech act interactional ones. This suggests the plausibility of content-level, i.e. causal predictive conditionality as a center from which semantic extension occurs to epistemic [and] speech act ... domains. The content domain ... is the source domain.... If this is so, then the uses of conditional constructions to mark the inferential [and] speech act ... relations which are expressed by non-predictive constructions are instances of metaphorical use (p. 185).

This hypothesis provides Dancygier with her title and the main thesis she wishes to prove: conditionals that exhibit causal and therefore predictive relations between their antecedents and consequents are the most prototypical instances of the category of conditional constructions from which other, less typical, types are derived by metaphorical extension.

It is necessary to say a little more about the (concomitants of the) causal and predictive relations, and Dancygier sets out the details in the book's relatively long second chapter. The story is not always perfectly clear and this is the consequence of the author's positive account being too often punctuated by specific criticisms of, and more general background comments on, a broad range of alternative accounts, but the general shape of the positive case seems to be as follows. First, Dancygier sets store by the notion of backshift. This notion accommodates the observations that the time marked in the verb phrase in the antecedent can be earlier than the time referred to. Thus, the present tense can refer to a future event or situation, the past to a future event or situation, and the past perfect to a past event. She calls the first case "if-backshift," the second "weak hypothetical backshift," and the third "strong hypothetical backshift." Second, Dancygier also sets store by the notion of epistemic stance. This notion accommodates the observations that antecedents may be assertable and may indeed be true, but that they are not presented as a belief that the speaker holds at the moment of speech. Third, Dancygier requires will in one or another of its forms in the consequent. If these criteria are conjoined and illustrations found for them, as in (4)-(6) below,
(4) If it rains the match will be cancelled.

(5) If it rained the match would be cancelled.

(6) If it had rained the match would have been cancelled.

then it become possible to claim that the present tense in (4) signals neutral epistemic stance about a future event: the past tense in (5) signals a negative epistemic stance about a future event; and the past perfect in (6) signals a negative epistemic stance about a past event. (4)-(6) are prototypical examples of what Dancygier calls the predictive conditional constructions, and predictive conditionals are prototypical examples of conditionals more generally.

The distinction between predictive and nonpredictive conditionals is important. Predictive conditionals are tightly constrained. Nonpredictives are not so. The distinction, and the associated constraints, allow Dancygier to say, (i), of (7) and (8),
(7) *If your mother had been here she will be in tears.

(8) *If John wins the election it would be a shock (p. 50).

that they are ill-formed because nonhypothetical constituents cannot mix with either weak or strong hypothetical constituents; (ii), of (9) and (10):
 (9) If he won't arrive before nine there is no point in ordering
 for him.

(10) If she is in the lobby the plane arrived early (p. 62).

that the default causal constraints between antecedent and consequent are suspended and so the conditionals assume nonpredictive interpretations; and (iii), of (11):
(11) If I drink too much milk I get a rash (p. 63).

that this example constitutes evidence for a third, hybrid, category of generic conditionals that share some properties of both predictive and nonpredictive conditionals.

The classification, though too sketchily outlined in this review, and acknowledged by Dancygier to be prone to leaks, is not without some interest. But there are several questions that need more adequate examination than Dancygier gives them before we can have confidence in this "cognitive turn" in the analysis of conditionals. First, there is her claim that

The only assertion that is made in a conditional construction is about the RELATION between the protasis and the apodosis ... the interpretation of the relation between p and q is crucial to the interpretation of the whole construction because in a prototypical conditional the connection between the assumptions in the two clauses is what is actually being asserted ... what is asserted is the causal connection between p and q, not the clauses themselves (p. 72 and pp. 13-14).

There are several points here that, in the interests of brevity, I shall merely state rather than discuss. First, this position is in contrast to the Gricean and other radical pragmatic approaches that see the relation in question as implicated and not asserted. It is also in contrast to the various neo-Gricean and post-Gricean approaches, among which one must evidently include relevance theory, that also see the relation in question as implicated and not asserted. But Dancygier embraces relevance theory. So. without further discussion, it is not clear either (a) what to make of this claim or (b) what role relevance theory plays in her overall account. Second, it is unclear what Dancygier means by "asserted." In some places she qualifies her use with "in the speech act sense of the word assertion" (p. 14) and thereby implies that the relation is pragmatic; in other places (e.g. p. 185) she suggests that the word refers to the level of content and that therefore the relation is semantic. This equivocation is unfortunate. More generally, it is unclear throughout the book what is semantic and what is pragmatic.

Second, there is her claim that

There is ... the question of precisely what kind of relationships should fall under the label "causality." The predominant view seems to be that causality should be viewed in the common, everyday understanding of the word (p. 83).

Dancygier endorses the predominant view, while at the same time recognizing that this view is subject to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. The consequence of falling victim to this fallacy is that temporal and causal notions become blurred. Dancygier insists that analyses (such as those of Dudman 1984, 1985, 1994) that posit temporal and not causal relations between antecedents and consequents are inadequate, but if the notion of causality that is being endorsed is indistinct from temporal notions then the relationship between an account like Dancygier's and one like Dudman's is much more controversial. Further reasons for doubting Dancygier's endorsement can be found in Emmet (1985).

Third, the application of construction grammar is entirely rhetorical. There is no formalism in this book. It is possible, from other literature (e.g. Shibatani and Thompson 1996, as well as the references mentioned in the first paragraph above) for the reader to reconstruct a formal interpretation of construction grammar, but Dancygier would have better served her purposes if she had herself undertaken that responsibility. Similarly, the application of relevance theory is also entirely rhetorical. There is no statement in this book on how Dancygier intends this theory to be understood. Such a statement would have been most desirable as it cannot be said that the independent reader, from other literature, is able to reconstruct a consistent interpretation of this theory.

Finally, this reviewer has not been able to understand the role that mental space theory (e.g. Fauconnier 1985, 1997; Fauconnier and Sweetser 1996) plays in the overall account. Dancygier makes several references to the consequences of the use of the various kinds of if construction to cognition, but once again she eschews the use of formalism and it is not possible to infer the details of the integration of the construction-grammar syntax, the relevance-theoretic semantics and pragmatics, and the mental space-theoretic cognition.

This book, then, attempts to motivate a new classification of conditionals but it does so by attempting to integrate theories that are not obviously compatible. The reader who believes that the most reliable knowledge results from the most carefully examined, details will not, here, find his or her understanding of conditionals advanced very much.


Dudman. V. H. (1984). Conditional interpretations of if sentences. Australian Journal of Linguistics 4, 143-204.

--(1985). Thinking about the future. Analysis 45, 183-186.

--(1994). On conditionals. Journal of Philosophy 91, 113-28.

Emmet, Dorothy (1985). The Effectiveness of Causes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fauconnier, Gilles (1985). Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language. London: MIT Press.

--(1997). Mappings in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--; and Sweetser, Eve (eds.) (1996). Spaces, Worlds and Grammar. London: University of Chicago Press.

Fillmore, Charles J. (1988). The mechanisms of "construction grammar." In Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: General Session and Parasession on Grammaticalization, 35-55. Berkeley: BLS.

--; Kay, Paul; and O'Connor, Mary Catherine (1988). Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: the case of let alone. Language 64, 501-538.

Kay, Paul; and Fillmore, Charles J. (1999). Grammatical constructions and linguistic generalizations: the What's X doing Y? construction. Language 75, 1-33.

Shibatani, Masayoshi; and Thompson, Sandra A. (eds.) (1996). Grammatical Constructions: Their Form and Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sperber, Dan; and Wilson, Deirdre (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sweetser, Eve (1990). From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Linguistics: an interdisciplinary journal of the language sciences
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Previous Article:Suppletion, lexical meaning, semantic primitives, and translation data(*).
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