In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conditionals

  • Introduction
  • Conditionals in Linguistics
  • Collections of Papers
  • Conditionals in Philosophy
  • Psychology and Cognitive Science
  • Syntax of Conditionals
  • Typology
  • Conditional Then
  • Deontic Conditionals
  • Anankastic Conditionals
  • Biscuit Conditionals
  • Donkey Sentences: Anaphora in Conditionals
  • Dynamic Analyses of Conditionals
  • Quantified Conditionals and Compositionality
  • Conditionals, Discourse, and Information Structure
  • The Proviso Problem
  • Conditional Perfection
  • Analyses of Conditionals in Languages Other than English
  • Non-Canonical Conditional Constructions

Linguistics Conditionals
Ana Arregui
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0093


Over the years, conditionals have proven a lively domain of research in disciplines such as linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive science. The study of conditionals in linguistics has provided critical insights into many issues across diverse domains in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. In English, conditionals are standardly of the form “If A, (then) B,” where the if-clause is known as the antecedent or protasis, and the main clause is known as the consequent or apodosis. There is a relatively large body of linguistic research on a variety of conditional constructions and puzzles (where, with notable exceptions, the focus has been on data from English). It includes (among many others) work on indicative conditionals (e.g., If Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, somebody else did), counterfactual conditionals (e.g., If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over), deontic conditionals (e.g., If the doctor gives medicine B on Monday, he should give B on Tuesday), “biscuit conditionals” (e.g., There are biscuits on the sideboard if you want them), anaphoric relations in conditionals (e.g., If a farmer owns a donkey, he beats it), etc. As well as addressing some of the traditional philosophical puzzles (e.g., the distinction between indicative and subjunctive/counterfactual conditionals), debates in linguistics address specifically linguistic topics (such as the nature of the structural relation between the antecedent and the consequent, the role of tense and aspect, presupposition projection in conditionals, the role of if-clauses as restrictors, motivation for dynamic approaches to meaning, cross-linguistic generalizations, nonstandard conditionals, the role of discourse and information structure, etc.). The majority of the works cited in this article are drawn from the linguistic literature and focus on canonical conditional constructions. While it is not always possible to establish a clear division between “philosophical” vs. “linguistic” works, the emphasis has been on research that addresses natural language data, focuses on meaning compositionality, syntax, cross-linguistic variation, or in some other way addresses theoretical questions that are part of the standardly recognized linguistics tradition.

Conditionals in Linguistics

The texts cited in this section provide introductions and overviews of topics in the semantics of conditionals framed within linguistic discussions. Some of the works are of particular interest for descriptive information about conditionals in English and will be helpful to readers who wish to have a comprehensive overview of data patterns possible in the language: Declerck and Reed 2001 provides a detailed overview and classification of conditionals, while Quirk, et al. 1985 and Huddleston and Pullum 2002 are general grammars that include insightful sections on conditionals. Von Fintel 2011 and von Fintel 2012 provide overviews of topics in conditionals that integrate philosophical and linguistic concerns, paying attention to philosophical puzzles within a more linguistics-oriented setting. Palmer 2001 offers a discussion of modality in natural language backed up with a wide range of cross-linguistic data, while Portner 2009 provides a more theoretical and technical overview of modal issues. Though not dedicated to conditionals, both works provide important background. Portner 2009 is of particular interest in presenting a general introduction to Kratzer’s work on modality and conditionals, of enormous impact in the field (see references to Kratzer’s work in Natural Language Semantics).

  • Declerck, Renate, and Susan Reed. 2001. Conditionals: A comprehensive empirical analysis. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110851748

    The book provides a detailed and thorough descriptive overview of conditionals in English, proposing a classification of different kinds of conditionals, examining diverse conditional connectives, tense patterns, marked structures, and interpretations. Of interest to readers who would like an overview of the complex pattern of data going beyond traditional examples.

  • von Fintel, Kai. 2011. Conditionals. In Semantics: An international handbook of meaning. Vol. 2. Edited by Klaus von Heusinger, Claudia Maienborn, and Paul Portner, 1515–1538. Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 33.2. Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter Mouton.

    An introduction to classic topics in the semantics of conditionals, offering an overview of philosophically inspired proposals as well as more compositional linguistically inspired analyses. An ideal introduction to the topic, combining traditional problems and state-of-the-art research.

  • von Fintel, Kai. 2012. Subjunctive conditionals. In The Routledge companion to philosophy of language. Edited by Gillian Russell and Delia Graff Fara, 466–477. New York: Routledge.

    An overview of issues in the semantics of subjunctive/counterfactual conditionals. It covers classic problems in philosophy (e.g., non-monotonicity) but includes also topics that are part of the more “linguistic” tradition (e.g., dynamic analyses, the restrictor view, the role of tense and aspect).

  • Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The grammar includes a descriptive overview of conditionals in English, discussing classification as well as tense/aspect marking.

  • Palmer, Frank R. 2001. Mood and modality. 2d ed. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139167178

    The book offers a classic introduction to topics in modality, including illustrative data from a wide range of languages. It does not have a section dedicated to conditionals, but topics of great importance for an understanding of conditionals are discussed throughout the book (e.g., indicative/subjunctive, realis/irrealis, real/unreal conditions).

  • Portner, Paul. 2009. Modality: Oxford surveys in semantics and pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to topics in modality geared fundamentally toward linguistic issues. It includes a brief section on conditionals (pp. 247–257). Highly recommended, it will be of interest to readers wishing to locate the topic of conditionals within the larger topic of modality.

  • Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London and New York: Longman.

    The grammar provides descriptive generalizations and classifications of conditionals in English.

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