Research on Language and Computation

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 417–462

Conditionals as Definite Descriptions

  • Philippe Schlenker


In Counterfactuals David Lewis noticed that definite descriptions and conditionals display the same kind of non-monotonic behavior. We take his observation literally and suggest that if-clauses are, quite simply, definite descriptions of possible worlds [related ideas are developed in M. Bittner (2001) Proceedings from SALT XI, CLC, Cornell University, Ithaca, pp. 36–55]. We depart from Lewis,s analysis, however, in claiming that if-clauses, like Strawsonian definite descriptions, refer. We develop our analysis by drawing both on Stalnaker,s Selection Function theory of conditionals and on von Heusinger,s Choice Function theory of definiteness, and by generalizing their analyses to plural Choice/Selection Functions. Finally, we explore some consequences of this referential approach: being definites, if-clauses can be topicalized; the word then can be analyzed as a pronoun that doubles the referential term; the syntactician,s Binding Theory constrains possible anaphoric relations between the if-clause and the word then; and general systems of referential classification can be applied to situate the denotation of the descriptive term, yielding a distinction between indicative, subjunctive and ‘double subjunctive’ conditionals.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philippe Schlenker
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUCLA and Institut Jean NicodFrance)

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