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Iffy discourse: Japanese moshi in conditionals and nominal topics

  • Muyi Yang EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


Conditional antecedents often contain elements that require the truth of the antecedent proposition to be open. One such element is Japanese moshi, which can occur in conditional antecedents and topics. I argue that in both constructions, moshi requires the context to be “iffy”, in that the antecedent proposition or the set of individuals picked out by the topic must not be settled by the context. I build on Ebert, Christian, Cornelia Ebert & Stefan Hinterwimmer (2014. A unified analysis of conditionals as topics. Linguistics and Philosophy 37(5). 353–408) and analyze moshi as an element that imposes a variation requirement on the speech act performed by conditional antecedents and topics.

Corresponding author: Muyi Yang, Department of Linguistics, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA, E-mail:

Award Identifier / Grant number: 2116972


For comments and discussions, I am grateful to Teruyuki Mizuno, Magdalena Kaufmann, Yoshiki Fujiwara, Frank Sode, Nadine Theiler, an anonymous reviewer, and my audience at the Semantics Colloquium of Geothe University Frankfurt, UConn Meaning Group, and the workshop The Semantics and Pragmatics of Conditional Connectives at DGfS 43. I also thank the editor of this special issue, Mingya Liu. This work was supported in part by National Science Foundation, Award No. 2116972, “Research on conditional and modal language” (Magdalena Kaufmann, PI; Stefan Kaufmann, Co-PI).

Appendix: Motivation and main idea of Ebert et al. (2014)

Ebert et al.’s (2014) treatment of conditional antecedents as topics is motivated by the similarity between aboutness topics and regular hypothetical conditionals on the one hand, and between relevance topics and biscuit conditionals on the other. The gist of their analysis is that aboutness topics and antecedents of hypothetical conditionals relate with their comments/consequents via predication; specifically, they establish novel discourse referents that resolve the anaphoric elements in the comments/consequents. In contrast, relevance topics and antecedents of biscuit conditionals relate with their comments/consequents in terms of their coherence in discourse. Below, I highlight their key observations and briefly introduce how the observations are explained by their proposal.

In English, aboutness and relevance topics can be expressed by dislocating a DP to the left and by separating phrases like as for, respectively (see also Repp 2011).

a. The pastor, nobody likes.
b. As for the pastor, the marriage sermon was wonderful.
(Ebert et al. 2014: 365 (38))

In German, they can be distinguished based on the forms of the pronouns in the comment parts. In aboutness topics (the construction is called German left dislocation), the pronoun must be a weak d-pronoun, whose case must match with the case of the topic, as shown in (35). In relevance topics (usually called hanging topic left dislocation), the pronoun in the comment may occur in various forms such as the personal pronoun in (36), and its case need not match that of the topic.

Den Pfarrer, den kann keiner leiden.
the.acc pastor rp.acc can nobody like
‘The pastor nobody likes.’
(Ebert et al. 2014: 364 (33))
Der/Den Pfarrer, keiner kann ihn leiden.
the.nom/the.acc pastor nobody can him like
‘The pastor, nobody likes him.’
(Ebert et al. 2014: 364 (34))

See their Section 3.1 for other ways of distinguishing between the two types of topics based on prosody and binding.

Ebert et al. (2014) propose that the different requirements for resumptive pronouns reflect how each type of topics combines with their comment. For aboutness topics, the resumptive d-pronoun in the comments is analyzed as a variable that must be bound by the topical referent. Hence, the comment of (34a)/(35) is interpreted as the speaker’s commitment to the truth of the proposition that nobody likes the topical referent (i.e. the pastor) at the world of evaluation, as in (37a).[16] For relevance topics like (34a), the comment asserts only that the proposition is true in the world of evaluation (in German (36), the anaphoric pronoun is interpreted as a free variable).

a. Comment of (34a)/(35) ASSERT c ( w c ) ( λ w . ¬ y . [ p e r s o n ( w ) ( y ) l i k e ( w ) ( x 1 ) ( y ) ] ) ,
where x 1 is bound by the referent established by the topic.
b. Comment of (34b) ASSERT c ( w c ) ( λ w . w o n d e r f u l ( w ) ( ι x . m a r r i a g e s e r m o n ( w ) ( x ) ) ) .

The two types of conditionals, hypothetical and biscuit conditionals, also differ in terms of whether they allow anaphoric elements in the consequents to refer to the antecedents (and also in terms of the other properties that distinguish aboutness and relevance topics). That is, hypothetical conditionals allow the pro-form then, whereas biscuit conditionals do not, as shown in (38a) versus (38b).

a. If Peter went shopping, (then) there is pizza in the fridge.
b. If you are hungry, (*then) there is pizza in the fridge.

Ebert et al. (2014) analyzes then as a variable that restricts the assertion of the consequent proposition, which, in the case of conditionals, picks up the world-referent established by the antecedent. By uttering (38a), the speaker thus commits to the truth of there being pizza in the fridge in the worlds where Peter went shopping, as in (39a). The consequent of biscuit conditionals, which do not allow such pro-forms, only asserts that there is pizza in the fridge in the evaluation world, as in (39b). This captures the fact that the truth of the consequents in biscuit conditionals does not depend on the truth of their antecedents.

a. Consequent of (38a) ASSERT c ( w 1 ) ( λ w . p i z z a i n f r i d g e ( w ) ) ,
where w 1 is a variable that refers to a contextually salient world-referent.
b. Consequent of (38b) ASSERT c ( w c ) ( λ w . p i z z a i n f r i d g e ( w ) ) .


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Received: 2021-03-05
Accepted: 2021-06-01
Published Online: 2022-06-27

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