How why-interrogatives work

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How do why-interrogatives work? How do they express the questions they express, in the contexts in which they express them? In this essay, I argue that, at a fundamental level, why-interrogatives work just like other wh-interrogatives, particularly other adjunct wh-interrogatives, and they express the questions they express, in the contexts in which they express them, by the same means that other wh-interrogatives do. These conclusions go against a trend in recent work on why-interrogatives, which holds that they are syntactically and semantically unlike other wh-interrogatives. Since the claim that why-interrogatives are unlike other wh-interrogatives has been taken to support various philosophical theses about the nature of why-questions and explanation, showing that why-interrogatives are just like other wh-interrogatives undermines this line of support for these theses.

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  1. 1.

    See Groenendijk and Stokhof (2011), p. 1060 for discussion.

  2. 2.

    As this quotation from Hintikka and Halonen demonstrates, exceptionalism has also been defended for how-interrogatives. Indeed, how-interrogatives have been the subject of much recent debate. See the essays in Bengson and Moffett (2011), for instance. The view that how-interrogatives are filler-gap constructions is widely assumed in these debates, however. So, how-interrogatives are at least treated as syntactically like other wh-interrogatives. The debates primarily concern ascriptions of know-how and whether these ascribe propositional knowledge or not.

  3. 3.

    The claim that why-interrogatives are syntactically unlike other wh-interrogatives is widespread in mainstream generative grammar. See Rizzi (2001), Ko (2005, 2006), Thornton (2008) and Tsai and Stepanov (2008). Other linguists and linguistically oriented philosophers treat why-interrogatives as fundamentally syntactically like other wh-interrogatives. See Groenendijk and Stokhof (1982), Koura (1988), Collins (1991), Haegeman (1994), Higginbotham (1993, 1997), Asher and Lascarides (1998), Ginzburg and Sag (2000), Stanley and Williamson (2001), Sag (2010), George (2011), Shlonsky and Soare (2011) and Stanley (2011).

  4. 4.

    Contrastive theories of why-questions and explanation are widespread. See van Fraassen (1980), Ruben (1987, 1992), Temple (1988), Lipton (1990, 1991, 2004) and Sandborg (1998).

  5. 5.

    See Bromberger (1992). Bromberger was, of course, reacting to the influential work of Hempel (1965). Bromberger’s approach to explanation via abnormic laws has been taken in new directions by Winiewski (1999).

  6. 6.

    van Fraassen attributes the observation that why-interrogatives are contrast-sensitive to Bengt Hansson (van Fraassen 1980, p. 127). In a footnote he traces it to Hansson’s “Explanations-of-What?”, mimeographed and circulated, Stanford University, 1974. He adds that “[t]he idea was independently developed, by Jon Dorling in a paper circulated in 1976, and reportedly by Alan Garfinkel ...” (van Fraassen 1980, p. 224, fn. 34). Garfinkel’s work was unpublished at the time, but was published as Garfinkel (1981). See also Achinstein (1983) and Bromberger (1992) for seminal discussions.

  7. 7.

    For a defence of such context-shifting arguments see Szabó (2006) and for criticism see Cappelen and Lepore (2005).

  8. 8.

    I recognise that these judgements about how-interrogatives may be controversial. This is certainly an area that deserves further investigation. If it turns out that how-interrogatives are also contrast sensitive, then the question arises as to whether this motivates a kind of exceptionalism about how-interrogatives or whether such contrast sensitivity can be accommodated on the usual syntax and semantics of how-interrogatives. My view is that if how-interrogatives are contrast-sensitive, this can be accommodated on the usual syntax and semantics and that something along the lines of the account given for why-interrogatives in the final section of this paper might be modified to accommodate how-interrogatives.

  9. 9.

    A suggestion along these lines is made in Skow (2016), p. 63.

  10. 10.

    This label isn’t meant to have too much theoretical significance. See Gazdar et al. (1985), Chap. 7 for discussion. See also Engdahl (1986), Chap. 2, Pollard and Sag (1994), p. 157, Borsley (1996), Chap. 9, Huddleston and Pullum (2002), p. 914 and Sag (2010), p. 505.

  11. 11.

    The phrase structure approach has been developed in various ways. In addition to Gazdar (1981) and Gazdar et al. (1985), see Pollard and Sag (1994), Hukari and Levine (1995), Bouma et al. (2001), Culicover and Jackendoff (2005) and Ginzburg and Sag (2000). Much of the discussion to follow can be recast in terms of the GB theory of Chomsky (1988). See also Chomsky (1977) and Chomsky (1986). For an overview of the GB syntax of wh-interrogatives in a philosophical setting see Higginbotham (1997), Sect. 2.

  12. 12.

    For more detail, see Gazdar (1981) and Gazdar et al. (1985) or Culicover and Jackendoff (2005), pp. 330–331.

  13. 13.

    Such an argument is given in Haegeman (1994) for thinking that adjunct wh-interrogatives are filler-gap constructions. See also Borsley (1996), p. 161.

  14. 14.

    Here I am drawing on Hamblin (1958, 1973), Karttunen (1977), Belnap (1982) and Groenendijk and Stokhof (1984). The theory I offer is closest to the theory of Hamblin (1973).

  15. 15.

    Propositional function views have a venerable history. See Cohen (1929), p. 353 and Hull (1975), p. 35.

  16. 16.

    This observation is made by Belnap (1982), pp. 172–174.

  17. 17.

    This approach is taken in Stanley and Szabó (2007), Stanley (2007, 2011), Groenendijk and Stokhof (2011) and George (2011).

  18. 18.

    Unfortunately, Bromberger doesn’t provide any details about the source of this ‘well-known argument’.

  19. 19.

    In the philosophical literature, both van Fraassen (1980) and Hintikka and Halonen (1995) take their cue directly from Bromberger without mentioning his arguments. Tsai and Stepanov (2008) is a representative example in the linguistics literature where Bromberger’s arguments are wheeled out and slightly modified in support of exceptionalism.

  20. 20.

    See Cattell (1978) for some critical discussion of this line of argument.

  21. 21.

    See Hukari and Levine (1995), pp. 206–207 for discussion of the data from McCloskey (1979), pp. 171–172.

  22. 22.

    See also Huddleston (1984), Haegeman (1994), pp. 517–518, Higginbotham (1997), Sect. 3, Asher and Lascarides (1998), p. 268, Stanley and Williamson (2001), Stanley (2011), Pietroski (2006), p. 834 and Sag (2010), p. 533.

  23. 23.

    I’d like to thank a reviewer for Synthese for bringing the following evidence to my attention.

  24. 24.

    Again, I am thankful to a reviewer from Synthese for this point.

  25. 25.

    The main advantage this theory has over the similar proposal in Higginbotham (1993) is that it does not assume that why-interrogatives are ambiguous with respect to ‘because’ and ‘in order to’.

  26. 26.

    See, for instance, Skow (2016), p. 26, Huddleston and Pullum (2002), p. 725, Huddleston and Pullum (2005), p. 166, Stanley (2011), p. 45, Achinstein (1983), p. 30, and George (2011), p. 29.

  27. 27.

    It is related to the Old English ’hw’-words ’hwa’ (who) and ’hwæt’ (what). ’Hwy’ is in the instrumental case (Hogg 2002, p. 71).

  28. 28.

    See Traugott (1992), p. 253.

  29. 29.

    For statements of this intuitive idea see Huddleston (1984), p. 366 and Stanley and Williamson (2001), p. 422.

  30. 30.

    Salmon and Kitcher discuss one possible way of doing this, drawing on van Fraasen’s remarks (Kitcher and Salmon 1987, pp. 319–322).

  31. 31.

    See Beaver and Clark (2008) for further discussion of focus and domains of quantification.

  32. 32.

    For a particularly sophisticated model applied particularly to the case of how-interrogatives see Asher and Lascarides (1998). See also van Rooy (2003), Ginzburg (2012) and Roberts (2012).

  33. 33.

    See Nickel (2010) for a similar conclusion about ‘because’-constructions.


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I’d like to thank members of the Forschungskolloquium: Sprache & Welt at the University of Hamburg for comments on an earlier version of this essay. I’d also like to thank an audience at the ANU Philosophy of Mind Work in Progress Group for comments on a more recent version of this essay. I’d especially like to thank Benjamin Schnieder and Daniel Stoljar for many helpful discussions on these and related topics. Finally, I’d like to thank three anonymous reviewers for Synthese for comments which significantly improved the essay. My time at the University of Hamburg was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Cox, R. How why-interrogatives work. Synthese (2019).

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  • Why-interrogatives
  • Why-questions
  • Context sensitivity
  • Contrastivism
  • Bas van Fraassen
  • Sylvain Bromberger