, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 383-410

Entertaining Alternatives: Disjunctions as Modals

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Following Zimmermann (2000), I propose that disjunctions are to be treated as conjunctions of modal propositions, and that the essential contribution of ‘or’ is merely to present a list of alternatives. Any further ingredients in the interpretation of a disjunctive sentence (such as exhaustivity) are due to extraneous factors; they are not part of the meaning of ‘or’. My analysis differs from Zimmermann’s in that it is more general and renders the logical form of disjunctive sentences less complex, but the main innovation is that the context dependence of modality is called upon to play a leading role. The theory applies not only to disjunctions of ‘may’-sentences but also covers universal modalities and conditional disjuncts. The paper concludes with a discussion of narrow-scope ‘or’.

I am indebted to Fabian Battaglini, Mandy Simons, Anna Szabolcsi, and Ede Zimmermann, who provided me with helpful comments on the first version of this paper, and to Phil Johnson-Laird and Keith Stenning, who commented on the paper’s grandmother (now deceased).