Inferential Conditionals and Evidentiality


Many conditionals seem to convey the existence of a link between their antecedent and consequent. We draw on a recently proposed typology of conditionals to argue for an old philosophical idea according to which the link is inferential in nature. We show that the proposal has explanatory force by presenting empirical results on the evidential meaning of certain English and Dutch modal expressions.

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  1. 1.

    For a survey of the main accounts of conditionals as well as the problems they face see, for instance, Edgington (1995), Bennett (2003), or Douven (2011).

  2. 2.

    As many authors have pointed out, the distinction between indicative and subjunctive conditionals is not as clear-cut as one might wish. However, the conditionals that were used in the materials of our experiments to be reported in this paper were all uncontroversial cases of indicative conditionals.

  3. 3.

    See, among others, Dancygier (1998, 2003), Dancygier and Sweetser (2005), Declerck and Reed (2001), Haegeman (2003), and Verbrugge (2007).

  4. 4.

    This description is too broad to allow for a demarcation of content conditionals from other types of conditional sentences. Even though sentences such as “If she never answers his e-mails, he will get very disappointed with her” or “If you take ice out of the deep freeze, it melts” have been described as typical examples of content conditionals (Verbrugge 2007, p. 4), it would seem that those may well be characterized in terms of inferential relations between their antecedents and consequents, and hence labelled as “inferential”.

  5. 5.

    See for some proposals, Cialdea Mayer and Pirri (1993, 1995), Kyburg and Teng (2001) and Gabbay and Woods (2005).

  6. 6.

    Note that this typology is not necessarily exhaustive. Following Douven and Verbrugge, we remain non-committal as to whether conditionals expressing, for instance, causal or analogical inferences should be analyzed as separate types or as subclasses of, say, inductive inferential conditionals.

  7. 7.

    As (Douven and Verbrugge (2010), p. 304), note, in contextual AI conditionals, the consequent need not always be the best explanation of the antecedent. It may also be that the consequent is, in light of the antecedent, the best explanation of one of the background assumptions.

  8. 8.

    The deeper explanation of these results might be in terms of acceptability conditions, which might be different for the different types of conditionals, or in terms of truth conditions, which might also be different for the different types. See Krzyżanowska (2012) and Krzyżanowska et al. (2013) for an exploration of the idea that the different types of inferential conditionals have different truth conditions.

  9. 9.

    Note that by taking its explanatory force as evidence for the typology we are relying on abduction. While neither for the purposes of Douven and Verbrugge’s (2010) paper nor for the current use we are making of their proposal is it necessary to make any assumptions about the confirmation-theoretic status of abduction, for independent reasons we do believe that abduction is in much better normative standing than is generally believed, see Douven (2013).

  10. 10.

    According to Aikhenvald (2004), evidentiality is a grammatical category, and hence lexical items used to mark the source of information, which are available in all languages, are not evidentials in this strict, narrow sense. She argues that what can be found in English and many other European languages are mere evidential strategies. However, not all linguists agree on such a restrictive view. For a discussion of Aikhenvald’s position see, e.g., (Diewald and Smirnova (2010), pp. 3–6).

  11. 11.

    See, e.g., Willett (1988), Faller (2002) and Matthewson et al. (2007).

  12. 12.

    Kwon (2012), who identified the Korean evidential -napo- as signalling the presence of an inductive inference, seems to be an exception.

  13. 13.

    See, for instance, (Matthewson et al. (2007), p. 205 ff) for an analysis of an evidential system of St’át’imcets with two inferential markers; or (Smirnova (2012), p. 12 ff) for a discussion of a clearly abductive inferential evidential in Bulgarian.

  14. 14.

    See, e.g., (Karttunen (1972), p. 12), (Groenendijk and Stokhof (1975), p. 69), (Veltman (1985), p. 161 ff) and (Kratzer (1991), p. 645).

  15. 15.

    (Dietz (2008), p. 246) also notes that in “It must be raining”, the auxiliary indicates that the speaker only has (what he calls) “inferential evidence”, and no direct observational evidence, that it is raining. See in the same vein Anderson (1986), Papafragou (1998), van der Auwera and Plungian (1998), Nuyts and Vonk (1999), Salmon (2011), and Mortelmans (2012).

  16. 16.

    In Dutch, “should” is expressed by means of the verbal complex consisting of a counterfactual auxiliary “zou” and the infinitive “moeten” (“must”). See Huitink (2008) for a discussion of modal concord in Dutch.

  17. 17.

  18. 18.

  19. 19.


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We are greatly indebted to two anonymous referees and to the editors for valuable comments. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the Logic & Cognition Workshop at ESSLLI 2012 and at the London Reasoning Workshop 2013. We thank the audiences on those occasions for stimulating questions and discussions.

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Correspondence to K. Krzyżanowska.



This appendix presents the contexts and conditionals that, together with the example given in Sect. 4, were used in Experiment 1. Experiment 2 used the Dutch translation of these materials. We state here only the conditionals without marker. From these and the explanation in Sect. 4, the versions of the conditionals with the markers can be straightforwardly inferred.

DI Items:

  • Context: All students in class 6C have at least a B for their math test paper.

  • Conditional: If Ben is in class 6C, then he has at least a B for his math test paper.

  • Context: Last year, all people older than 65 have been vaccinated for the flu.

  • Conditional: If Mrs Harris is 70 years old, then she has been vaccinated for the flu.

  • Context: All Indian elephants have small ears.

  • Conditional: If Babou is an Indian elephant, then it has small ears.

  • Context: All white cats possess a gene that predisposes them to develop blindness late in their lives.

  • Conditional: If Paul’s kitten is white, then it possesses a gene that predisposes it to develop blindness late in its life.

  • Context: Two friends are wondering whether Cynthia passed the exam. They know that it was an absolute requirement for the exam to hand in a thesis before the end of the semester.

  • Conditional: If Cynthia did not hand in her thesis before the end of the semester, then she failed.

AI Items:

  • Context: You know that Tom and Hank recently had a flaming row which, you think, ended their friendship for good. Now a friend tells you that she thinks she just saw Tom and Hank jogging together.

  • Conditional: If Tom and Hank are jogging together again, then they are friends again.

  • Context: Someone tells you that a nearby village, located in a valley below a dammed reservoir, has been flooded. You doubt that this is true. On the other hand, the dam has been in a rather bad state for some time.

  • Conditional: If the village has been flooded, then the dam has broken.

  • Context: Judy is waiting for the train. She is looking for her iPod to listen to some music while she waits. It is not in her coat. Yet she is sure that she took it this morning. Perhaps it is in her bag. Then she sees that the bag has been cut open. At that moment there is an announcement that pickpockets are active in the train station.

  • Conditional: If Judy’s iPod is not in her bag, then someone has stolen it.

  • Context: Pete had to play the finals of a tennis tournament earlier today. Two friends of his, who do not yet know the result of the match, are walking to Pete’s house. Pete is not really a party-person, but from a distance, it seems to them that there is a party going on in Pete’s garden.

  • Conditional: If Pete is partying, then he has won the match.

II Items:

  • Context: 99 % miners develop silicosis, a disease caused by inhaling fine dust for a prolonged period of one’s life.

  • Conditional: If Rudolph has worked in the mines for all his life, then he has developed silicosis.

  • Context: According to the local bus company, none of their buses has been more than 5 min late in the past 10 years. You are presently waiting for a bus of this company.

  • Conditional: If our bus is not exactly on time, then it will be at most a few minutes late.

  • Context: A pharmaceutical company unexpectedly got into financial trouble. They had to cut many jobs and decided to fire most employees above 50. Mark is an employee of this company.

  • Conditional: If Mark is above 50, then he is among the employees who will be fired.

  • Context: Bernard is a bit of an irregular student: sometimes he works hard, but he can also be lazy. So far he had excellent grades for most courses for which he had worked hard.

  • Conditional: If Bernard works hard for the linguistics course, then he will get an excellent grade for it.

  • Context: The hepatitis A virus may be transmitted by contact with an infected person, so people working in health care are at a higher risk of getting ill from the virus. The vaccine against hepatitis A is 95 % effective. Adam has recently started volunteering at a hospital.

  • Conditional: If Adam has been vaccinated against hepatitis A, then he will not get ill from the virus.

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Krzyżanowska, K., Wenmackers, S. & Douven, I. Inferential Conditionals and Evidentiality. J of Log Lang and Inf 22, 315–334 (2013).

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  • Conditionals
  • Inference
  • Evidentiality
  • Epistemic modals