counterfactual conditionals

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Feb 21 18:54:52 UTC 2000

in a posting of 18 february, debbie sawczak points out that WOULD is
possible in the antecedent of ordinary (merely hypothetical, rather
than explicitly counterfactual) conditionals, and that in such
examples a JUST could easily appear with the WOULD; and she provides
an (invented) example of this sort:
  (1) If it would stop raining,
        we could get these leaves raked up.
the antecedent in (1) could be reinforced some with JUST (or ONLY
or MERELY).  hypothetical-in-the-future antecedents like this are
not hard to invent or collect, and they include straightforward
predictions (with the tinge of exhortation that sawczak noted)
like (2) and displaced uses as polite directives, as in (3).
  (2) If you would (just/only) try harder,
        you would/could win.
  (3) If you would (just) step into my office, Mr. Zwicky,...

such examples are important to a discussion of the
WOULD-counterfactual, because they constitute a model on which
the WOULD-counterfactual could have been created, by an ordinary
sort of semantic change.  here's the story (in a rough form; i'm
thinking this through on the spot)...

hypothetical futures as in (1)-(3) have the implicature that a
future state does not hold in the present.  so they can be used to
convey, or can be understood by hearers as conveying, that this
state doesn't hold in the present.  as a result, hearers can take
this claim to be part of the *meaning* of the antecedent - "what it
says" - and an implicature is "elevated" semantically.  what starts
out as a hypothetical future ends up as a (present) counterfactual.

i am not yet able to reconcile this story with another observation
that a number of posters have made in this discussion, namely, that
the earliest examples of WOULD-counterfactuals seem to be *past*
counterfactuals, with WOULD HAVE.  and, in fact, most of the examples
i've collected have WOULD HAVE; in fact, they have it in both
antecedent and consequent:
  (4) If he would have come after me,
        I would have made a very easy target.
  (5) I would have been here sooner if you would have called.

[these particular examples, from speech, had a (to me) clear WOULD and
a following element i've transcribed as HAVE, but which was certainly
unaccented and, i'm pretty sure, had a [v]. i cannot swear to whether
an [h] was present.  there are perils in the collection of fortuitous
examples (often heard on a car radio or on television while i'm
multi-tasking).  in any case, counterfactual WOULDA has taken on a
separate grammatical life of its own (for some speakers), as other
posters in this discussion have noticed; i *think* (4) and (5)
were just WOULD HAVE examples, but i might have been wrong.  (as a
footnote to this footnote, i should point out that the WOULD here
is quite often reduced to 'D, though it wasn't in (4) or (5).)]

there are several possibilities here.  one is that present
counterfactuals with WOULD were all over the place, but nobody noticed
them, because they could be interpreted as hypothetical futures.  they
sounded perfectly ordinary, and there was no significant problem in
understanding them.  past counterfactuals with WOULD HAVE, on the
other hand, stand out, because they're simply ungrammatical for a lot
of people.  observers are strongly biased towards the (to them)
peculiar, after all.

in any case, for quite a lot of folks, there is now clearly a
present (neither future nor past) counterfactual with WOULD, as in
the following (collected) examples, which i give with a fair amount
of helpful context:
  (6) [from a usenet discussion group - i.e. *typed*.  the writer
       is responding to claims that denigating gay people is
       not bigotry (because homosexuality is a choice)]
      If I would choose to consistently denigate, abuse, and
      otherwise give unreasoned grief to all, say, 7th Day
      Adventists just because they're 7th Day Adventists,
        I would *certainly* be a bigot.
  (7) [from a new york times story]
      ...Senator Herb Kohl, the Wisconsin Democrat, asked why
      Microsoft's percentage of sales to profits was so much higher
      than those of businesses in other industries.  His not so
      subtle suggestion was that Mr. Gates was a monopolist looking
      to safeguard his treasure chest.

      "That's an extraordinary profit level in America," Mr. Kohl

      "If your industry would be a lot more competitive,
        your prices would be a lot lower, your profits would be
        lower, the value of the shares would go down, and the
        value of youre shares would go down."

      [i do not exclude the possibility that herb kohl phrased
      this rather differently, and that the reporter translated
      kohl's counterfactuals into what (s)he would have said.
      so this is either evidence about kohl's dialect or evidence
      about the reporter's - but it's evidence about *somebody's*

arnold (zwicky at

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