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Japanese free choice items as unconditionals


This article examines syntactic and semantic properties of free choice items (FCIs) in Japanese. It is argued that Japanese FCIs, which have been considered to have a wh-item and a scalar focus particle demo, actually involve a clausal structure, which contains a null subject, a copula, and a subjunctive modal/mood. This proposal explains a number of puzzling issues regarding their distribution as FCIs compared with those in other languages. A compositional semantic analysis of Japanese FCIs is then proposed based on this morpho-syntactic decomposition; the Japanese free choice items are essentially analyzed as unconditionals, and it is shown that the subjunctive mood plays a crucial role in deriving relevant interpretations (in particular, counterfactuality, an ignorance inference, and an indifference inference) in the spirit of Izvorski (2000). This article also discusses a number of extensions and implications of the proposal: correspondence of different wh-items to different atomic levels in Condoravdi’s (2015) individuation scheme, scalarity of Japanese FCIs, the typology of FC expressions, and connection to correlative constructions. In addition, this article addresses some issues regarding licensing contexts of Japanese FCIs, an existential-like interpretation obtained in the presence of the phrase ii-kara ‘good-because’ in imperatives, anti-episodicity, subtrigging, the so-called Canasta scenario, and partitives.

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  1. An exception is so-called subtrigging, which I will turn to in Sect. 4.3.

  2. The ignorance inference and the indifference inference are not always both present, though.

  3. According to a reviewer, every can also have an ignorance inference.

  4. To be more precise, Oda (2016) observes that there are two accent patterns with wh-demo: one with a falling accent after de, and the other with a flat intonation (no accent). Oda argues that only the former involves a clausal structure, and the latter is a grammaticalized form which has demo as a single morphological unit attached to wh-items. He shows that only the former accent pattern allows an additional subject, as illustrated in (i) (the apostrophe in the wh-item means a falling accent).

    1. (i)
      figure e

    It should be added here that there seems to be dialectal variation regarding the difference in accent. I consulted ten native speakers of Japanese (including myself): six of them are from the western part of Japan (three from Hiroshima, two from Osaka, and one from Fukuoka), and four from the eastern part of Japan (one from Chiba, one from Ibaraki, one from Tokyo/Kanagawa, and one from Gifu). Interestingly, the six speakers from the west observe the contrast with respect to accent without sore-ga, whereas the four from the east do not. Still, those from the east find the contrast in (i) when sore-ga is overt. This of course needs to be tested with more speakers, but it suffices for our purpose that the optional subject is allowed with wh-demo. For ease of presentation, I do not indicate the accent pattern throughout this paper.

    Since there are two types of wh-demo observed, a reviewer suggests that there could be two different ways to derive FC-ness in Japanese, one involving the clausal structure and one involving wh+‘even’, where ‘even’ is a single lexical item. In fact, there are languages where ‘even’ as a single lexical item (as far as we can immediately tell) is combined with a wh-item to derive an FCI (e.g., Hungarian: Abrusán 2007). Interestingly, Hungarian uses the same item akár for FCIs and unconditionals, on a par with Japanese demo; Szabolcsi (2019) actually proposes a unified account of the two expressions. See Abrusán (2007) and Szabolcsi (2019) for an analysis of the wh+‘even’ type, which I think can be extended to the non-clausal wh-demo. I am grateful to the reviewer for pointing this out.

  5. Even speakers who do not find the difference regarding the accent pattern in footnote 4 observe the contrast between (5) and (6).

  6. I am grateful to reviewers for bringing these works to my attention.

  7. To be precise, stative verbs are not (necessarily) intensional contexts, but can be understood as a sort of generic context. Here I simply follow Oda (2013), who adopts Giannakidou’s (2001) and Giannakidou and Cheng’s (2006) classification of licensing contexts.

    As for future tense, a reviewer has pointed out that dispositional will licenses any, but other uses of the future might not (see, e.g., Carlson 1981, Menéndez-Benito 2013, Nickel 2010). (11b) also seems to be able to have a dispositional interpretation, though it can also be simply future generic.

  8. In fact, hotondo is compatible with genuine universal quantifiers like wh-mo and ‘all’, as in (i) and (ii).

    1. (i)
      figure p
    1. (ii)
      figure q
  9. Oda (2013) observes that ‘all’ is compatible with wh-demo, which he takes to be another diagnostic for the universal reading of wh-demo. See Oda (2013) for the data.

  10. However, (20) is acceptable with a universal-like reading in certain contexts. See Sect. 4.1 for discussion.

  11. I discuss an apparent counterexample to this property in Sect. 4.1.

  12. It should, however, be noted that wh-demo is not allowed in episodic contexts, while both of the Korean FCIs can occur in those contexts, according to Kim and Kaufmann (2006). Thus, the Japanese counterpart of (30) in (i) does not have an episodic interpretation: rather, it has a habitual-like interpretation in which John had a certain permanent character trait. See Sect. 4.3 for discussion.

    1. (i)
      figure ak
  13. It should be added that the intensionality in question has different sources in these languages; in Korean, the difference in wh-item matters (amwu vs. nwukwu), whereas in Japanese the difference lies in the particle (demo vs. mo). Thus the compositional details are expected to be different in the two languages. Still, as we will see, my analysis shares certain key properties with Kim and Kaufmann’s (2006).

  14. Nakanishi (2006) notes that NP-mo can have the even-like interpretation when the NP is focused. I put this case aside in this paper.

  15. In the literature, the occurrence of demo in episodic contexts as in (37d) has often been presented as acceptable, but Nakanishi (2006) reports speaker variation regarding acceptability of demo in episodic contexts, and Watanabe (2013a) finds such cases unacceptable. Watanabe (2013a:207, fn7) suggests that the speaker variation stems from differences in the extent to which speakers tolerate infelicity caused by polarity sensitivity of demo. I do not discuss the source of speaker variation here. It suffices for the current purpose that there are speakers who share the judgment in (37d). See also Sect. 4.3 for a possibly relevant factor.

  16. To be more precise, de is a non-finite variant of the copula da, which is exemplified by (i).

    1. (i)
      figure ap
  17. Here deat and dear are treated as a single morphological unit, but Oda (2016) posits a further decomposition (de + at or ar; see below). This detail does not matter here, so I treat deat and dear as single units in (39).

  18. Another possibility is that Pred (de), v (ar), T (oo), C (to), and F (mo) are contracted as demo, deattemo, or datte. As shown in (i), datte can be combined with a wh-item and gives rise to a FC interpretation, though it resists mo. The choice of these two analyses does not affect the argument of the text, as long as a clausal structure is involved.

    1. (i)
      figure at
  19. This being said, there is a stylistic difference among wh-demo, wh-deat-te-mo, and wh-dear-oo-to-mo: wh-demo can be used colloquially or formally, but wh-deat-te-mo has a more formal flavor, and wh-dear-oo-to-mo sounds even more formal, or even a little archaic. An investigation of this difference is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is worth mentioning here that non-contracted forms in general have a more formal flavor than their contracted counterparts (e.g., cannot vs. can’t).

  20. Actually Nakanishi (2006:fn.6) hints at the possibility that demo can be decomposed into the copula de and mo, but she does not pursue it in her paper.

  21. This is not discussed by Oda (2016).

  22. The same holds for NP-demo, as shown in (i).

    1. (i)
      figure bf

    This reinforces the argument that wh-demo and NP-demo share the same clausal structure.

  23. NP-demo patterns with wh-demo in this respect, too, as shown in (i). Instead of demo, mo has to be used, as in (ii).

    1. (i)
      figure bh
    1. (ii)
      figure bi
  24. Mikkelsen (2005) observes that an animate personal pronoun is marginally possible in (58). But she suggests that in this case the clause is an equative clause, not a specificational clause. See Mikkelsen 2005 for discussion.

  25. In fact, this optional subject can be a non-pronominal noun phrase that denotes an individual concept, as illustrated in (i). (The optional subject in (i) sounds redundant, though.)

    1. (i)
      figure bs

    In addition, the optional subject can be a non-pronominal element that is not co-referent with the matrix subject, as shown in (ii).

    1. (ii)
      figure bt

    Moreover, when given enough context, the overt or covert pronoun under discussion can refer to someone who is not the subject of the matrix clause (Whoever hei (e.g., the teacher) is, s/hek can solve the problem).

  26. Gonzalez and Lohiniva (2019) propose a similar analysis for French unconditionals, which involve a “place-holder” pronoun as illustrated in (i). I am thankful to a reviewer for pointing this out.

    1. (i)
      figure bv
  27. Note that I assume that Japanese wh-items are not definite descriptions, unlike relative wh-phrases in Izvorski’s (2000) analysis. But we will see below that wh-demo involves a definite description in the relevant proposition and presupposition, just like (63b), due to the demonstrative.

  28. It should be noted that -oo can also be combined with declaratives of type 〈s,t〉, as shown in (i).

    1. (i)
      figure by
  29. Another candidate for a form of subjunctive in wh-ever adjunct free relatives is so-called “concessive” may, as seen in (i).

    1. (i)
      figure cb
  30. The reader can confirm that interpreting sore in Spec,TP with its trace in Spec,vP gives us the same result.

  31. To be more precise, (79) can be answered by an individual concept, such as yakyuu-bu no buchou da yo ‘(It is) the captain of the baseball club’. Here I am simplifying the discussion.

  32. (79c) can be a felicitous answer if there is a unique smart student in the context. In this case, the entire sentence is specificational like (79a) and (79b), not predicational.

  33. Interestingly, Alonso-Ovalle and Shimoyama (2014) discuss a similar contrast regarding existential indefinite wh-ka. They show that wh-ka with dore ‘which’ expresses ignorance about individuals, whereas wh-ka with nani ‘what’ expresses ignorance about the type of individual, which is parallel to the distinction between dono ‘which’ and donna ‘what kind of’ that I discuss here (note also that dono is simply an adnominal form of dore). Thus, not surprisingly, the distinction between individual-level atom and type-level atom is quite general in wh-items in Japanese. I am thankful to a reviewer for bringing Alonso-Ovalle and Shimoyama’s work to my attention.

  34. There is an implicit contextual restriction to salient or natural sub-properties.

  35. A reviewer suggests the interesting possibility that the specificational de and the predicational de could be unified by appealing to some type-shifting operation. As the reviewer also notes, the question is whether there is crosslinguistic evidence that supports the uniformity approach. I would like to examine this on another occasion.

  36. It should be emphasized that what is quantified over here are sub-properties of ‘student’; these includes things like {freshman, sophomore, junior, senior} and also {smart student, mediocre student, dumb student}, but not things like {smart, mediocre, dumb}, since they are not sub-properties of ‘student’.

  37. See also Erlewine (2014) and references therein for a similar remark on English even.

  38. Alternatively, this class of adjectives in Japanese can be analyzed as including a copula which is morpho-phonologically contracted: see Nishiyama (1999) and Watanabe (2013b) for discussion.

  39. Somewhat relatedly, a reviewer has pointed out that the combination of a concessive conditional and “good” in its consequent is used as a permission modal in Korean (Chung 2019). Interestingly, a Japanese permission modal also has the combination of “even if” and “good”. I refer the reader to Chung (2019) and Kaufmann (2017) for Korean and Japanese data, respectively, and detailed discussions.

  40. In fact, other expressions that express permission/indifference can be used in the place of ii.

    1. (i)
      figure dg
  41. A reviewer asks whether the “default” existential interpretation of the empty object is available in other environments, such as (i).

    1. (i)
      figure dn

    I find it possible to obtain the “pick one” interpretation in the second clause in (i). Thus, the existential interpretation in question is not limited to the cases of wh-demo + ii-kara.

  42. Szabolcsi (2019) also proposes that the distribution of Hungarian FCIs and unconditionals can be explained by (a variant of) the fluctuation theory. Under Szabolcsi’s proposal, the fluctuation requirement is a presupposition encoded in the Hungarian focus particle akár, which is used in both FCIs and unconditionals. One possible extension of this to Japanese wh-de-mo is that the fluctuation requirement is a presupposition encoded in mo. This could also be extended to NP-de-mo, which is disallowed in episodic contexts just like wh-de-mo; see Sect. 3.1. It is also worth noting here that wh-mo and NP-mo are licensed in episodic contexts (see Sect. 3.1). One can thus argue that mo in wh-mo and NP-mo differs from mo in wh-de-mo and NP-de-mo mo in that the former does not encode the fluctuation requirement (in other words, mo is homophonous). I am grateful to a reviewer for bringing Szabolcsi’s work to my attention.

  43. It should be mentioned that there can be an overt demonstrative in the de-mo clause and in the consequent, as in (i), as expected from the current analysis of wh-demo (note that the topic Bill-wa is located high in the left periphery). Although (i) sounds a little odd due to the redundancy of the demonstratives, it is much better than (ii), where wh-mo is used.

    1. (i)
      figure dv
    1. (ii)
      figure dw
  44. As a reviewer has pointed out, there are cases where FCIs are licensed in the presence of a necessity modal, as in (i) and (ii). This holds in Japanese as well, as in (iii).

    1. (i)
      figure dy
    1. (ii)
      figure dz
    1. (iii)
      figure ea

    These sentences have a generic interpretation, as noted by Aloni (2007) and Menéndez-Benito (2010). I refer the reader to their works for more discussion and possible formal analyses.

  45. (112a) is improved with a dispositional interpretation. See Sect. 4.3 for discussion.

  46. Dayal later changes her treatment of English any; in Dayal (2013), she considers any to be an indefinite rather than a universal quantifier, following Chierchia (2013). See Dayal (2013), Chierchia (2013), and references therein for relevant discussions. Here I do not commit myself on the debate of English any. Whether any is a universal quantifier or an indefinite is orthogonal to the validity of the fluctuation account as a general theory of FC-expressions with universal quantificational force.

  47. See also Caponigro and Fălăuş (2018), who oberve a pragmatic effect that licenses FCIs in episodic contexts, and propose a necessary condition that licenses FCIs in such contexts.

  48. Menéndez-Benito provides an analysis of the Canasta example based on exclusiveness.

  49. In English, a sentence with every (You can take every card from the discard pile) is fine under the Canasta scenario according to my four informants. However, a sentence with each (You can take each of the cards from the discard pile) is judged as false (or significantly degraded) by three of the informants, and as slightly worse than the sentence with every by one of them (but this informant also said that she had hesitation when she saw this sentence, unlike with the other sentences). (A sentence with all, like You can take all of the cards from the discard pile, is good for all these informants.) They have also said that the sentence with every can have both collective (‘take all at one time’) and distributive (‘take them one by one’) readings, whereas the sentence with ‘each’ only has the distributive reading (but for one of them ‘each’ also has the collective reading). I have no solid analysis of the difference between every on the one hand and each and Japanese wh-mo on the other (perhaps each is “strictly distributive” in some sense and speakers can vary in the extent to which they can tolerate the oddness), but see footnote 50 for one possible way of reasoning.

  50. One possibility to explain the difference between wh-mo and English every is that wh-mo eventually involves quantification over propositions due to the wh-item and Pointwise Functional Application (cf. Shimoyama 2006), whereas every involves no such quantification (i.e., it simply quantifies distributively over individuals within a single proposition). As for each, it might be the case that it can involve distributive universal quantification over propositions like wh-mo, which leads to degradedness for some speakers. Alternatively, there might be different scope interactions between the modal and the quantifier with every and each, with each more likely to only get wide scope over a modal (but see Dayal 2009 for a different view; see also Menéndez-Benito 2005, 2010, who notes that wide scope universal quantification does not predict falsity in the Canasta scenario). A full investigation of this awaits future research.

  51. It should be noted here that the partitive use of FCIs is problematic for domain-widening approaches to FCIs in general. I would like the suggestion here to be taken as a possible first step toward a better understanding of the issue, rather than a comprehensive explanation.

  52. Aloni’s formalization of conceptual cover is given in (i), where W is a set of possible worlds, D is a universe of individuals, and CC is a conceptual cover that is a set of functions from WD.

    1. (i)
      figure eq
  53. Denotations of some other elements such as the copula should be amended accordingly, which I omit to do here for space reasons.

  54. I am grateful to reviewers for encouraging me to discuss these.

  55. Some Mesoamerican languages also employ a subjunctive for FC headless relatives; see Caponigro et al. (2021). I am thankful to Christine Bartels for bringing this to my attention.

  56. In this context, Romanian is peculiar, because, as Caponigro and Fălăuş (2018) note, Romanian does not allow subjunctive, unlike Italian, and adopts a conditional or indicative form. This is somewhat reminiscent of Japanese, where the longest form with overt subjunctive -oo sounds quite formal (and even a bit archaic), as noted in footnote 19, and the shorter “conditional” forms de and deatte are more often used.

  57. Balusu (2020) also notes that Tamil uses copula+conditional+additive particle in FCIs (aan-aal-um), though he does not provide a sentence with an FCI.

  58. It should also be related that there seems to be an affinity between subjunctive mood and conditional constructions.

  59. In Spanish, the two verbs need to be strictly identical, whereas in Brazilian Portuguese the two verbs can have different tense as long as they are subjunctive (the latter observation is attributed to Jairo Nunes). This is irrelevant for our concern here.

  60. Quer and Vicente extend this to Latin, where doubling of a wh-item is involved in FCIs. One could also suggest that in French (127) there is a sort of “relative clause doubling”, which signals universal quantification, just like verb doubling in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese does.

  61. I am grateful to a reviewer for pointing this out.

  62. See also Demirok (2017) for an unconditional analysis of Turkish FC-expressions/correlatives.

  63. As noted in Sect. 2.2, Korean and Japanese FC expressions differ with respect to the locus of the intensionality (amwu vs. nwukwu in Korea, versus de-mo vs. mo in Japanese). Thus, not surprisingly, although there are commonalities in the truth conditions, the compositional derivation is quite different.

    Still, one may wonder whether the proposal in this paper can be extended to Korean FCIs. Unfortunately, this also seems to be difficult. The problem is that Korean FCIs do not seem to involve copula or subjunctive mood, at least not on the surface. It might be the case that Korean FCIs actually do involve subjunctive mood after all, but I leave a full investigation of this issue for future study. See also footnote 4 for the possibility that there can be more than one way to compose FCIs.

  64. Erlewine (2020a,b) and Balusu (2020) propose a compositional semantic account of FCIs in Tibetan and Dravidian languages, respectively, in a similar way as I have analyzed Japanese wh-demo (Erlewine 2020b also compares Tibetan FCIs with wh-demo). They analyze propositional alternatives of FCIs in these languages as even-type conditionals from a different perspective than I take here. It is thus not easy to directly compare their analyses and mine here, but there may yet be a way to unify them. I would like to examine this on another occasion.


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I would like to express my utmost gratitude to Stefan Kaufmann for his invaluable help and guidance. I am also indebted to Jon Gajewski and Magdalena Kaufmann for their helpful comments and suggestions. Further thanks for judgments and discussion go to Akihiko Arano, Sarah Asinari, Rahul Balusu, Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine, Yoshiki Fujiwara, Ryosuke Hattori, Yasuhito Kido, Si Kai Lee, Teruyuki Mizuno, Emma Nguyen, Yuya Noguchi, Miyu Oda, Hiroaki Saito, Nic Schrum, Yuta Tatsumi, Muyi Yang, and the audiences at SNEWS at MIT in 2017 and the UConn Logic Group workshop in 2019. I am also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and helpful comments, and to Christine Bartels for her careful copy-editing and language correction. All remaining errors are of course my own.

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Oda, H. Japanese free choice items as unconditionals. Nat Lang Semantics 29, 281–338 (2021).

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  • Free choice item
  • Unconditional
  • Subjunctive
  • Stalnaker conditional
  • Individuation scheme
  • Fluctuation