Generics, Frequency Adverbs, and Probability
- Cite this article as:
- Cohen, A. Linguistics and Philosophy (1999) 22: 221. doi:10.1023/A:1005497727784
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Generics and frequency statements are puzzling phenomena: they are lawlike, yet contingent. They may be true even in the absence of any supporting instances, and extending the size of their domain does not change their truth conditions. Generics and frequency statements are parametric on time, but not on possible worlds; they cannot be applied to temporary generalizations, and yet are contingent. These constructions require a regular distribution of events along the time axis. Truth judgments of generics vary considerably across speakers, whereas truth judgments of frequency statements are much more uniform. A generic may be false even if the vast majority of individuals in its domain satisfy the predicated property, whereas a frequency statement using, e.g., usually would be true. This paper argues that all these seemingly unrelated puzzles have a single underlying cause: generics and frequency statements express probability judgments, and these, in turn, are interpreted as statements of hypothetical relative frequency.