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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 26, 2019

Echoicity and contrast in Spanish conditionals

Elena Castroviejo and Laia Mayol
From the journal The Linguistic Review


This paper is concerned with a conditional construction in Spanish, which we call echoic contrastive conditional, ecc for short. In eccs, the consequent is entailed, the antecedent echoes the content of a previous assertion, and both antecedent and consequent are marked with a Contrastive Topic. Our goal is to fit these properties in a formal explanation compatible with a simple analysis of conditionals. We claim that eccs are a subtype of biscuit conditional, in that antecedent and consequent are independent (i.e. do not express a hypothetical relation). Additionally, we assume that pragmatic reasoning has to explain why a conditional is used to express an adversative relation between the two clauses. First, a proposition that has already been proposed to increase the Common Ground is placed in the antecedent of a conditional in which there is no hypothetical relation between p and q. Thus, the addressee needs to reason as to the pragmatic function the speaker wants to achieve. Second, the Contrastive Topic marking signals that both conjuncts are answers to a multiple wh-question, proposed by the speaker as the current Question Under Discussion (QUD). Third, the answer provided by the second conjunct is a stronger argument for the speaker’s communicative goal than the one provided by the first conjunct. The joint occurrence of echoicity, lack of dependence and Contrastive Topic marking leads to an adversative rhetorical relation between the conjuncts.

1 Introduction

The goal of this paper is to provide an analysis of the Spanish construction illustrated in (1-B) and (2-B), which we call echoic contrastive conditional (ecc for short, henceforth).


As can be observed, eccs have the shape of a conditional, but their semantic contribution looks quite different from a run-of-the-mill conditional, since there does not seem to be a hypothetical connection between the antecedent and the consequent, and the consequent seems to be asserted. Additionally, both their own structure and the structure of the discourse in which they occur display some interesting regularities. Summarizing, we will show that the two clauses of the conditional are marked by contrastive constituents, which we will analyze as Contrastive Topics, and often display scalar terms. In addition, the antecedent is echoic to a preceding utterance, (1-A) and (2-A) in the previous examples.

Since eccs have barely been discussed in the literature, our first goal is to provide a thorough description of the construction. Moreover, we also aim to provide a pragmatic analysis of eccs that is compatible with a uniform semantic theory for indicative conditionals, and which explains the properties and constraints displayed by eccs. In particular, eccs raise the following questions:

  1. How are all the descriptive properties of eccs (i.e. echoicity, scalarity, Contrastive Topic marking and lack of hypothetical dependence between antecedent and consequent) related?

  2. What is the rhetorical relation between antecedent and consequent, and how does it follow from the semantics of a conditional construction and the Contrastive Topic marking?

Ultimately, the defining properties of eccs need to be made sense of and integrated in a theory of conditionals. At the same time, our attempt to fit eccs in the not-fully understood typology of conditional clauses will hopefully provide us with novel insights about the landscape of conditional structures and the set of rhetorical relations they can convey.

Our claims are the following:

  1. eccs are a subtype of biscuit conditional, in the sense that the antecedent (p) and the consequent (q) do not hold a causal or epistemic dependence.

  2. eccs are Contrastive Topic marked in both p and q, which signals that they are both answers to a multiple-wh-question, proposed by the speaker as the current Question Under Discussion (QUD). Additionally, p and q contrast in their focus values, when they contain a scalar term. Specifically, the latter entails the former.

  3. Echoing an assertion that the previous interlocutor thought was already in the Common Ground and placing it in the antecedent of a conditional expresses lack of speaker commitment.

  4. The rhetorical relation that arises between p and q is adversative, and so the meaning it conveys is analogous to the one conveyed by but.

The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 lays out the few remarks that have been made in the literature regarding eccs and the empirical observations that we have observed, and devotes some time comparing eccs to apparently similar sentences. Section 3 deploys our analysis, which starts from the pragmatic effects of echoing an assertion as the antecedent of a conditional, in 3.1; analyzes eccs from an informational structure perspective and discusses what this tells us regarding the Question Under Discussion, in 3.2; reflects on the semantics of indicative conditionals where there is no dependence between antecedent and consequent, in 3.3, and finally establishes an analogy with adversative coordinated structures, in 3.4. Section 4 concludes.

2 Previous work and description

2.1 Properties

As we have mentioned, eccs have not received much attention in the literature, with two notable exceptions: Narbona (1991) and Schwenter (1999). In his article on “colloquial syntax” of Spanish, Narbona points out that some conditionals are used “[…] with no other purpose besides that of effecting parallelisms or oppositions [by] taking advantage of their two-member protasis-apodosis structure […]” (Schwenter’s translation).[1] The second author brings up another important property, namely echoicity. To these properties (contrast, lack of conditional interpretation and echoicity), we add other, in our opinion, crucial properties of the construction: scalarity and expression of disdain. We discuss each property in turn.

1. Echoicity

As noted by Schwenter, the antecedent p of the ecc[2] echoes a previous utterance (“[…] the first clause in B’s response echoes the content of A’s prior assertion […]”, p. 73).[3]

For instance, both examples (1) and (2) are part of a dialogue and the proposition in p echoes a proposition just uttered by the participant of the dialogue. While eccs are more frequent in dialogue, they are also possible outside the dialogue realm. See as an example (4-b), which could appear in a textbook about dinosaurs, provided that p has either been asserted or can be inferred form a previous assertion, as the one in (4-a).


‘Dinosaurs went around the world devastating everything they found.’


‘(lit.) But if dinosaurs were scary, tyrannosaurus rex were downright terrifying.’

To see that echoicity is a necessary condition for the ecc interpretation to obtain, consider the following example:


Here we have introduced an explicit question as the preceding discourse move to ensure that Speaker A does not assert the proposition that is then resumed by Speaker B. Hence, there is no echoicity. The result is a distributive interpretation of the conditional, which can be paraphrased as “x did this, while/whereas y did that.” As we will see in Subsection 2.2, this is not an ecc interpretation, since in eccs antecedent and consequent are part of an argumentative competition. Also, notice that the acceptability of both (5-B1) and (5-B2) suggests that scalarity (as described in 3. below) is not a necessary ingredient. Thus, (5) is a felicitous example, but not a case of ecc.

2. Contrast.

Narbona notes that the biclausal structure of the conditional is used to emphasize two opposed propositions. Regarding this opposition, Schwenter (1999) adds the observation that the contrastive function of the construction is evidenced by the obligatoriness of the overt subject pronouns. That is, example (1) is only acceptable with overt pronouns as subject for the two clauses of the conditional; its counterpart with null subject pronouns, as in (6), is not acceptable.


This requirement is noteworthy in a null-subject language like Spanish in which the null pronoun is the default, non-marked option. Overt pronouns in Spanish are used for information-structure purposes: they either mark the focus (Luján 1999) or a Contrastive Topic (Mayol, 2010).

We take the contrast between (1) and (6) to show that eccs need Contrastive Topics, which must be realized overtly, either as subjects or otherwise. For instance, (7) is another example of an ecc; since the subjects of the two clauses refer to the same individual, null pronouns can be used and the Contrastive Topics are realized through temporal adjuncts.


More specifically, the relationship between the two conjuncts needs to be adversative; a very natural way to paraphrase the meaning of eccs is using the adversative conjunction pero (‘but’) as shown in (8).[4]


3. Scalarity.

On top of expressing two opposed propositions, eccs often contain scalar items in the focus position of the two clauses. When this happens, the scalar term in q is higher than the one in p on a contextually relevant scale. For instance, in (1) and (7) the two scalar items are tired < exhausted, in (2) 100 < 150 and in (4) be scary < be terrifying.

eccs are not acceptable if the stronger scalar item is located in p, even if the two propositions are contrastive, as shown in (9) and (10).[5]


As noted, scalar terms are frequently present in eccs, but are not required, as shown in the following naturally-occurring examples:

  1. Si tú estás cansado del cinismo imperante yo estoy cansado de los comentarios políticamente correctos del tipo “dependerá de cómo se haga”. ‘(lit.) If you are tired of the prevailing cynicism, I am tired of the politically correct comments of the kind “it will depend on how it is done”.’ (

  2. Si tu estás cansado de “intrusismo” yo estoy cansado de “profesionales” que se quejan cuando realmente el fallo está en ellos. ‘(lit.) If you are tired of “unauthorized practice”, I am tired of “professionals” who complain when it was really their fault.’ (

While the examples in (11) do not contain any scalar items, they do convey that the speaker considers her source of tiredness more important than the source of tiredness of her interlocutor, which she disregards as irrelevant (for more discussion of this point, see property 5).

4. Lack of hypothetical interpretation.

In the fairly standard restrictor (Lewis-Kratzer) account (Lewis 1975; Kratzer 1981), conditionals are analyzed as restrictors of a modal operator, which may or may not be overt. It follows that depending on the flavor of the modal (epistemic, generic frequency) the hypothetical relation is of a different type. Consider the two examples provided by von Fintel (2011):

  1. If he left at noon, he’s home by now. [epistemic necessity]

  2. If he leaves work on time, he has dinner with his family. [generic frequency]

That is, in (12-a) we are evoking a set of worlds compatible with what we know, and stating that in all such worlds where he left at noon, he’s home. On the other hand, in (12-b) we are picking out generic worlds where usually/always, when he leaves work on time, he has dinner with his family.

When the consequent describes a future event, we can think of it as restricting a modal operator whose modal base is metaphysical and whose ordering source is inertial (on this see e.g. Copley 2009).


Roughly, (13) conveys that in all metaphysically accessible worlds which continue as current facts allow and in which it rains, I stay at home.[6] The general idea remains that p is the restriction of a universal quantifier and, more specifically, the schema that all p worlds (maximally similar to the actual world) are q worlds (Stalnaker 1968; Lewis 1973).

Note that, under this account, causality is not directly encoded in the semantics. However, there is a dependence relation between p and q, which follows from the fact that q is not entailed to be true. In fact, its truth relies on p also being true. Hence, in cases such as (14), which we call hypothetical conditionals, the truth of q depends on the truth of p.


The dependence can be epistemic, as in (15). That is, in all worlds compatible with what I know in which it rains, we have arrived in Bilbao.


In Spanish, epistemic conditionals can be identified because q can be preceded by es que ‘it is’ or esto significa que ‘this means that’. Or else, the modal may be overtly realized, as in (16-c).


‘If it rains, we have arrived in Bilbao.’


‘If it rains, this means we have arrived in Bilbao.’


‘If it rains, we must have arrived in Bilbao.’

Let us now go back to eccs. They are not hypothetical conditionals since there is no obvious connection (either causal or epistemic) between the truth of p and the truth of q. In eccs the speaker is committed to the truth of q. That is, the truth of q does not seem to depend in any way on the truth of p, and q is implied irrespective of the truth of p. Me being exhausted does not depend on you being tired.[7] Mary having corrected 150 exams does not necessarily / usually depend on John having corrected 50 (but see below for a situation in which this could be the case). Both events can be true at the same time, or one could be true while the other be false at the same time. In this critical sense, eccs differ from hypothetical conditionals.

Certainly, as pointed out by an anonymous reviewer, sentences such as (2), repeated below for convenience, can also convey a hypothetical relation.


Imagine that it is established by contract that Speaker B will always correct three times as many exams as Speaker A. Then, the sentence (19-B) does express a hypothetical relation and, so, the ecc interpretation need not arise. In this hypothetical interpretation, there is no scalarity or disdain (see property 5 below). In fact, we could also imagine a contract that establishes that Speaker A will always correct 10 exams fewer than Speaker B (in which case scalarity would not be observed). Then, example (20) would be possible under a hypothetical reading.


5. Expression of disdain.

eccs often convey that the speaker is either challenging the truth or dismissing the relevance of her interlocutor’s utterance. This is particularly the case in the dialogue examples. While this is an inference that may or may not arise, how it may come about is something that needs explanation.

2.2 What ECCs are not

We would like to point out the existence of some conditionals which look similar to eccs but should not be confused with them.

The first one is illustrated in (21), which was the slogan of the Catalan socialist party for the 2008 Spanish elections. This is a conditional which, like eccs, is marked with a Contrastive Topic in each clause, and the two clauses are opposed in some sense. However, unlike eccs, in this case there is a causal relation between p and q; the antecedent need not be echoic or contain scalar items, and the Contrastive Topic marking is not required (i.e. the pronouns are optional).


Second, eccs are also different from so-called backhanded conditionals (Muñoz 2013), (22), also called monkey’s uncle conditionals in Franke (2007a, fn 1), (23), or indicative counterfactuals in Dancygier (1999, 116), (24).

  1. If that’s true, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

  2. I’ll be hanged, if my abstract got accepted.

  3. If you are an astronaut, then I am the Emperor of China.


Dancygier’s comment is that, by offering a blatantly false q as being a consequence of p, the speaker is presenting p as also false. According to Franke, these conditionals convey that the speaker does not believe in the truth of p in virtue of two factors: modus tollens and the commonsense assumption that q is false. That is, since q is obviously not true, p is also implied not to be true. In Muñoz’s account, these conditionals imply that p is false by presenting an outlandish proposition in q, which is clearly known by all participants to be false in the actual world. As noted by an anonymous reviewer, p and q stand in a scalar relation, such that q is more absurd than p. At any rate, though, the potential truth of q is epistemically dependent on the truth of p. That is, at least from the point of view of the literal meaning of the construction, the speaker is presenting being the Empress of China as conditional on the speaker being the Pope. In contrast, in eccs, the speaker is committed to the truth of q irrespective of the truth of p. Furthermore, as opposed to eccs, in backhanded conditionals, two propositions are not necessarily contrastive.

Third, we want to mention another type of conditional in Spanish, pointed out by Narbona (1990, 94) and illustrated below (our glosses and translation), in which an opposition is established between p and q by means of Contrastive Topic:


An appropriate way to translate (25) would be as follows: ‘While economical matters where discussed yesterday, today the senators preferred to focus on political issues.’ That is, the bi-clausal structure is used to distribute the description of two parallel eventualities, as we mentioned previously in the discussion of example (5).

Just like in eccs, this conditional type does not seem to convey a hypothetical relation between p and q, as already acknowledged by Narbona (1991) for similar examples. However, they do not involve echoicity, and scalarity is absent, even in its weak form (it is not conveyed that the second conjunct is more important than the first one). In fact, while p and q are Contrastive Topic marked, the rhetorical relation between p and q is not the one displayed by eccs (we will elaborate more on this in Section 3.4).

Finally, we would like to devote some space to compare eccs with apparently identical conditionals, which are possible in a larger number of languages. Let us present again (1) as our point of departure, repeated below for convenience.


Apart from the ecc interpretation we have been discussing, (26-b) has another reading–-the one rendered by Schwenter (1999), as pointed out in footnote 5–-which we will call metalinguistic. This is one in which what Speaker B does is negotiate about where the standard of tiredness lies. Depending on where it is established, then q is going to be true. In other words, it could be paraphrased as “if this is what counts as being tired, then this means I should describe myself as exhausted”. In this metalinguistic interpretation, the speaker is manipulating the vagueness of the scalar predicates. This is not an ecc interpretation for there is an epistemic connection between p and q (all the worlds compatible with what we know in which this is the standard for being considered tired, are worlds in which I am exhausted).

Comparable constructions are the ones analyzed in Hinterwimmer (2010), illustrated in (27).[8]


Hinterwimmer observes that (27) can be paraphrased as (28), where a superlative reading of being drunk obtains.


What counts as being drunk depends on a contextually-determined standard. The speaker can look at Mary and utter ‘Mary is drunk’, because she wants to introduce into the Common Ground new information about Mary’s degree of intoxication (namely, that she meets a standard for drunkenness). This is what Barker (2002) names the descriptive mode of use of the vague predicate. Now, we can utter the same sentence in a different context. Imagine Mary’s degree of intoxication is common knowledge, but we do not know what counts as being drunk (in this area, culture, etc.). We are surrounded by people who are drinking and behaving in different ways according to how much (or how long) they have been drinking. Mary is among them, telling jokes and laughing, and not being able to stand still. Then, uttering ‘Mary is drunk’ can be a way of introducing into the Common Ground information about the standard of being drunk. This is Barker’s metalinguistic mode of use.

Hinterwimmer argues that (27) is ambiguous in the same way. In the descriptive reading, he argues, the sentence states that all worlds compatible with what is known and most similar to the actual world where there is someone drunk to a standard degree are worlds in which this person is Mary. To account for the metalinguistic mode of use, Hinterwimmer appeals to Barker’s dynamic analysis, and its key notion of delineation (a function on worlds that maps gradable adjective meanings to a degree). d(c)([[drunk]]) yields the standard for drunk in c. The sentence ‘Mary is drunk’ has the following denotation.


This is a context update whereby the worlds are removed from the context set on the basis of Mary’s degree of drunkenness in that world and the standard of drunkenness in that world. If Mary’s degree of drunkenness is common knowledge, then the worlds that will be excluded will be those in which standards are not low enough to make Mary drunk. In Barker’s terms, in this kind of update, we do not learn anything new about Mary’s drunkenness, but regarding what counts as drunk (in this area, culture, etc.).

If we extend this approach to conditionals, standards can vary across worlds, while the degree of the vague predicate as applied to the relevant individual can be very similar. This is what we need to play with to achieve the metalinguistic mode of use. Hinterwimmer adds to this that the ordering source, which picks out the best worlds, can filter out those worlds that are most strict in the ascription of the vague predicate. With this background information in mind, the sentence conveys that in all relevant accessible worlds c (compatible with what is known, potentially different with respect to the standard for drunkenness, where someone got drunk), the unique entity that got drunk to the degree corresponding to the standard in c is identical to Mary.

A similar approach can be offered to explain the metalinguistic (non-ecc) reading of (26). In this case, an epistemic dependence can be assumed between p and q, where p is a restrictor of the covert epistemic MUST, but its update does not exclude worlds in which A is not tired, but those in which d(c)([[tired]]) yields a degree that is lower than A’s well-known degree of tiredness. What this conditional amounts to is the statement that all worlds compatible with what is known, which are maximally similar to the actual world, and where A counts as tired, are worlds in which B counts as exhausted (i.e. more than tired). That is, the worlds that will be excluded in each update are those whose standards of tiredness are below A’s degree of tiredness.

Although a particular construction may be ambiguous between the metalinguistic and the ecc interpretation (for instance, see example (18-a) discussed in footnote 8), these two interpretations are different in critical respects. First and foremost, as has been assumed, the metalinguistic construction displays an epistemic dependence between p and q, which is absent in eccs. Recall that in the latter, p and q are independent (to be defined more precisely in Subsection 3.3.3). In example (2), repeated below for convenience, whether or not B has corrected 150 exams does not depend in any way on the possible event of A having corrected 50. Note that the use of numerals rather than vague predicates is decisive in this respect.[9] There will be languages that accept (26), but not (30).


Observe that, in (26), it is possible to insert entonces ‘then’ preceding q, which enforces the dependence between p and q. By contrast, this is impossible in (30), unless we want to convey that there is a causal or epistemic relation between p and q, (31). [10],



‘If you are tired, then I am exhausted.’


‘(lit.) If you had to correct 50 exams, (#then) I had to correct 150.’

Finally, under a metalinguistic analysis of (26), it is not necessary that the scalar predicate in q be higher than the one in p. That is, we can be wondering whether I count as exhausted or any degree of tiredness below the standard as specified by the if-clause. This is borne out. We use the degree phrase very tall to enforce felicity, and two possible wordings of the sentence, to rule out the ecc reading.


‘If you are very tall, then I am quite tall.’


‘If you are very tall, I must be quite tall.’

In these sentences, it is clear that the speaker is trying to place herself on a scale of tallness by assuming that the antecedent is conveying information on what counts as very tall. What is most important for our purposes is that the speaker’s height is below the addressee’s height. Therefore, there is no need for the focus of q to lie on a higher position on the relevant scale, which is one of the properties of eccs described in Section 2.1.[12]

As far as we have observed, eccs are possible in at least some Romance languages (Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese), but not in languages such as English, German or Hungarian. In these latter languages, (30) is infelicitous and (26) can only be interpreted with the metalinguistic interpretation just explained.

2.3 Interim summary

We have described ecc as a construction with a conditional form in which: p is echoic, the meaning of q is not conditional on the meaning of p, p and q contrast with each other and, if they include scalar items in focus position, they are ordered in terms of their position on a contextual scale, such that the one in q is higher than the one in p. Moreover, a speaker usually uses an ecc to convey her disdain towards p.

In the next section we will propose an analysis of this construction focusing on two main aspects:

  1. Why do eccs have the shape of a conditional? Can we reconstruct some kind of conditional relationship between p and q?

  2. How are the different properties we identified related to each other?

3 Proposal

This section spells out a proposal aimed at resolving the question why a conditional construction can be interpreted as expressing an adversative rhetorical relation between its antecedent and consequent. The necessary properties for this particular outcome are: echoicity, Contrastive Topic marking, and lack of dependency between p and q. In a nutshell, we assume a plain semantics for conditionals, whereby a dependence relationship is not grammatically encoded. We further propose the following: the addressee parses a structure whereby (1) a proposition that has been uttered by an interlocutor meant to increase the Common Ground is not (explicitly or tacitly) accepted, but placed in the antecedent of a conditional. This makes him reason as to the possible pragmatic function the speaker wants to achieve; (2) the antecedent has a particular information structure, specifically, it is Contrastive Topic marked, so the speaker is engaged in an inquisitive strategy which the addressee has to accommodate; (3) p and q are independent, so the communicative function of this construction is not to express a causal or epistemic dependence between antecedent and consequent; (4) q, which is also Contrastive Topic marked, is an alternative answer to the QUD the speaker has proposed to address. We argue that the joint occurrence of echoicity, Contrastive Topic marking and lack of dependence leads the speaker to believe that the addressee will be able to interpret an ecc as expressing an adversative relation between p and q, roughly, where q is interpreted as an argument against a communicative goal supported by p, and where q overcomes p in argumentative strength.

This section is structured as follows. First we discuss the pragmatic effects of echoicity. Second, we elaborate on the meaning conveyed by the information structural coding of an ecc. Third, we delve into the semantic assumptions of conditional sentences, and introduce the notion of independence as applied to conditional sentences, due to Franke (2007a); Franke (2007b); Franke (2009) and Biezma and Goebel (2017). The proposal concludes with the semantics and pragmatics of adversative rhetorical relations as applied to eccs, in light of Winterstein (2012).

3.1 Resuming an asserted proposition in the antecedent of a conditional

Let us go into so more detail about the consequences of p echoing a previous utterance. By doing that, the speaker gives rise to various meaning effects.

Following, among others, Gunlogson (2001) and Farkas and Bruce (2010), we assume that each participant has its own set of discourse commitments: that is, propositions to which participants publicly adhere to. The intersection of the commitment sets of the participants in a conversation yields the Common Ground.

Now, by uttering p, speaker A expresses her commitment towards p (she publicly adheres to p, so p is placed on her commitment set) and, simultaneously, proposes to add this proposition to the Common Ground. To this proposal, speaker B can react in several ways. The default, non-marked move for speaker B would be to accept such an addition to the Common Ground. Such acceptance can be explicit (by the speaker uttering ‘OK’, for example) or tacit. Speaker B could also reject p, by explicitly denying it, which would create a ‘conversational crisis’: either one of the participants retracts to the expressed commitment or they agree to disagree. eccs take a different route: what happens in eccs is that Speaker B places p in the antecedent of a conditional. This is not a rejection of p, but it is not an acceptance, either. In fact, ?p, which was supposed to be a settled question, is presented as open for discussion again (or brought to the table, in terms of Farkas and Bruce 2010).[13]

Let us now consider the inferences of indicative conditionals. It can be shown that a speaker who utters an indicative conditional considers p to be at least possible. This is sometimes called the nontriviality presupposition (see Isaacs and Rawlins 2008, on this) and it can explain the unacceptability of the discourse in (33), from Francez (2015, 16).


From here, a scalar implicature can be calculated such that p is only possible; that is, p is not probable or necessary (p¬p), or else the speaker would not have placed it in the antecedent of a conditional. That is, while the speaker does not necessarily indicate that she considers p to be false, she is clearly indicating her lack of (public) commitment towards p.

As we will see in the following subsections, echoicity is a necessary ingredient to interpret an indicative conditional as expressing an adversative relation, precisely because, by echoing a previously asserted p as the antecedent of a conditional, the speaker can indirectly belittle the value of p, by rejecting to commit to it. As we hope to make clear soon, she is presenting p as a weaker argument for a certain conversational goal.

3.2 Information structure of ECCs

As mentioned, eccs need two Contrastive Topics (CT, henceforth), one in each clause of the conditional. In this section, we will discuss why there is such a need and the consequences of the CT marking.

We assume a model of discourse based on the notion of Question Under Discussion (QUD) (Ginzburg 1994; Roberts, 1996), in which an utterance U, uttered in a context C1, addresses the most salient QUD (QUD-maxC1) and introduces a QUD which becomes the most salient in the output context (QUD-maxC2) (Vallduví 2016), as illustrated in (34).


A: [QUD-maxC1:] What are we having for dinner?

B: Fish.

QUD-maxC2: Are we having fish for dinner?

The answer ‘fish’ in (34-B) is the rheme of the utterance, its actual update potential, which is the locus of progression in discourse. In this utterance, there is no theme, which is the part of the utterance that does not address the QUD, but replicates material in the QUD. A theme-containing utterance can be observed in (35).


Such an answer would be possible in this context, but it is clearly marked, the fragment answer being more natural in a question-answer context. According to Vallduví (2016), “theme-containing utterances prepare the input context by promoting a given QUD to QUD-maximality prior to being elaborated on.” That is, a theme-containing utterance signals that the speaker is not addressing the expected QUD, but some other QUD. For instance, a theme-containing utterance can change the explicit QUD by broadening or narrowing it. (36) shows a well-known example by Büring (2003), in which the explicit QUD is split into several QUDs, and the CT[14] is necessary to identify the more specific QUDs the speaker has chosen to address: namely, ‘How was the sound?’, ‘How was the audience?’, and ‘How was the band?’, respectively.


How was the concert?

  1. The sound was awful.

  2. The audience was enthusiastic.

  3. The band was fantastic.

(37) shows the opposite case. The speaker chooses not to address the explicit QUD but rather a broader QUD (shown in (37-c)) and, to signal this change, she uses a theme-containing utterance, in which only the verb is rhematic.

  1. QUD-maxC1: Will Anna marry Manny?

  2. Anna HATES Manny.

  3. QUD-maxC2: How does Anna feel about Manny?

Let us go back to eccs and examine the discourse structure of example (1), repeated below as (38).


Speaker A utters ‘I’m tired’ and is, therefore, addressing the QUD in (39-a) and introducing a new QUD: the one in (39-b).


Crucially, Speaker B chooses not to answer the most salient QUD in the output context, but a different one. The two CTs in the ecc indicate that the speaker has decided to change the QUD. Assuming a mechanism à la Büring, in which CT-utterances trigger multiple questions, we end up with the question in (38-B). This QUD explicitly calls for opposed propositions, with different values for the slots ‘who’ and ‘how tired’, and allows the speaker to compare the uttered proposition (that is, p) with the one she wants to vindicate (that is, q).

Thus, the particular information structure of eccs with a CT in each clause serves to indicate that the speaker is changing the current QUD to another one that she is more interested in discussing. This move alone already hints that the speaker does not find p worth discussing and that, instead, she wants to move to a QUD that would allow her to compare p with another proposition. To discuss in more detail the relationship between p and q let us move to the discourse function of an independent conditional.

3.3 The discourse function of an independent conditional

A speaker may decide to use a conditional to express that there is a causal or epistemic dependence between antecedent and consequent. However, as shown in the previous sections, not all conditionals express a hypothetical relation between p and q. One case in point is the so-called biscuit conditionals (cf. DeRose and Grandy 1999; Siegel 2006; Franke 2007a; Franke 2007b; Predelli 2009; Biezma and Goebel 2017, a.o.) (also called relevance or speech act conditionals in the literature), illustrated in (40).

  1. If you are hungry, there is pizza in the fridge.

  2. If you need anything else later, my name is James.

In this paper we will argue that eccs are a subtype of biscuit conditional in the sense that these are conditionals where there is a lack of dependence between p and q, and q seems to be entailed irrespective of the truth of p.

In this subsection, we will first give an overview of biscuit conditionals, followed by a discussion of our assumptions about the semantics of conditionals and of the concept of epistemic independence.

3.3.1 An overview on biscuit conditionals

Biscuit conditionals differ from regular, hypothetical conditionals in that they do not state the conditions under which q is true. That is, there is no dependence between the truth of p and the truth of q: for instance in (40-a), there is no connection between someone’s hunger and the existence of pizza in the fridge. Therefore, it does not make sense for the interlocutor to follow-up on such conditionals by asking what would happen if p were not the case: if you are not hungry, there is still pizza in the fridge; and if you do not need anything else later, my name is still James. Rather, biscuit conditionals state when it is appropriate to utter q. As pointed out by Iatridou (1991) and Dancygier and Sweetser (1997), among others, one of the grammatical indicators that a conditional is biscuit rather than hypothetical is the infelicity of including then in the consequent, as shown below.

  1. If you are hungry, (# then) there is pizza in the fridge.

  2. If you need anything else later, (# then) my name is James.

Our first claim is that eccs are a subkind of ‘biscuit conditional’, to the extent that this term can cover for a heterogeneous class that includes all conditionals in which there is no conditional dependence between p and q. [15],

[16] One of the issues raised by biscuit conditionals is whether or not they are conditional assertions (i.e. rather than conditional propositions). This is the approach in DeRose and Grandy (1999), which is later qualified by Siegel (2006). Roughly, a conditional assertion would read as in (42). Here, the assertion that there is pizza in the fridge does depend on you being hungry.


Siegel (2006) later proposes a refinement whereby there are no conditional speech acts, but “potential literal acts.” She proposes the existence of a relevant assertion under certain circumstances, as described by the antecedent. This is shown in (43).

  1. If you are hungry, ap [a is an assertion of p p = ‘there’s pizza in the fridge’]

  2. If you are hungry, there is a relevant assertion that there’s pizza in the fridge.

We will not delve into the intricacies and details of these approaches (see Siegel 2006; Franke 2009, for discussion). We want to remain agnostic as to which proposal is more explanatory, but adopt Franke’s approach according to which the biscuit interpretation is not the result of an operator to this effect, but rather the consequence of pragmatic reasoning. In this paper, we pursue this account, which is more minimal, with the caveat that nothing in the phenomenon we characterize, namely eccs, provides any arguments in favor of one account over the other.[17]

3.3.2 A conditional update

Before moving on with the specific characteristics of conditionals where no dependence is established between p and q, let us stop for a moment and spell out our minimal assumptions regarding the semantics of conditionals. To be able to draw the possible inferences that underlie the utterance of such a conditional, we start from an analysis in which the effect of uttering “if p, q” incrementally affects context. In particular it can be seen as a three-step process. First, a derived context is created with the content of p. Second, the derived context is updated with q. Third, the effects of the preceding step update the non-derived context. Thus, the effect is one of saying that all p worlds are also q worlds. If we take into consideration the speaker’s epistemic state, we assume the following with Franke (2007a):


An agent who speaks truthfully when uttering “if p,q,” conveys that σpq, where σ is the agent’s epistemic state.

That is, the agent’s epistemic state intersected with p has to be a subset of the worlds denoted by q. Or in other words, the speaker is evoking those p worlds that are compatible with her belief state. This goes in the same line as Stalnaker’s remark (recall Section 2.1) that the p worlds need to be maximally similar to the actual world.

Note that, by adopting this semantics for conditionals, we are assuming that the dependence between p in q is not part of the literal meaning of the construction. This approach is coarse-grained enough to encompass cases such as biscuit conditionals, in which such a dependence does not exist.

3.3.3 Epistemic independence between p and q

In Franke’s (2007b, 2007a, 2009) work, a crucial concept is that of epistemic independence, which is said to hold between p and q in biscuit conditionals. Intuitively, the idea is that “a minimal change in the belief about the antecedent will not result in a change in the belief about the consequent, and viceversa” (Franke 2009, 266). He formalizes this idea as in (45):


Let us translate what (45) proposes. First, it states that any combination is possible between antecedent and consequent, irrespective of its polarity. This is to say that changes in one may not give rise to any changes in the other. Second, it points out that for p to be possible, it has to be compatible with the speaker’s epistemic state, both viewed as sets of worlds.

We are here especially interested in showing that this condition is borne out in the case of eccs. Recall (2), repeated below for convenience.


Whether or not you have to correct 50 exams does not affect in any way whether or not I have to correct 150 of them.[18] So the speaker may hold possible that the antecedent and the consequent are both true irrespective of their polarity.

Now, Franke argues that we can derive unconditionality (i.e. the implication of q irrespective of the truth value of p) on the basis of pragmatic reasoning and this notion of epistemic independence. His argument goes as follows:

First, if the speaker spoke truthfully when uttering “if p, q”, then σpq, as we explained in (44). That is, all p worlds are q worlds.

Second, if the speaker does not believe in a conditional dependence between p and q (and yet she makes use of a conditional construction), then the addressee may infer that the speaker believes one of the following two options: (a) she believes in the falsity of p, or (b) she believes in the truth of q. This is so because if the opposite were true, that is, if p and ¬q, then by conditional independence ((45)), it would follow that (p¬q). However, this would contradict the first assumption σpq, namely that the speaker spoke truthfully. Moreover, it can also be shown that a speaker who utters an indicative conditional considers p to be at least possible (contrary to option (a)). This is precisely the nontriviality presupposition (Isaacs and Rawlins 2008) we mentioned in Section 3.1. Given that the speaker must believe that p is possible, we may thus conclude that the speaker actually believes that q is true (option (b)). Therefore, it is expected that any conditional construction in which there is epistemic independence between p and q gives rise to an unconditional reading, in which the speaker is committed to the truth of q.

We will now look into the pragmatic reasoning that biscuit conditionals give rise to, in line with Franke’s (2007b, 2007a, 2009) reflections. Franke claims that in biscuit conditionals “the antecedent somehow […] assures that the consequent is understood appropriately.” (Franke 2007b, 4). Compare (47-a) and (47-b).

  1. There is pizza in the fridge.

  2. If you are hungry, there is pizza in the fridge.

After hearing (47-a), we may be inclined to reply “So what?”. Assuming that any speaker has a goal when making an utterance, the function of the assertion in (47-a) is not explicitly stated, and a result may be unclear. What is the pizza for? Is it for me to eat it? Is it for somebody else or for some other purpose? These questions are unnecessary in the case of (47-b), where the utterance of the antecedent licenses the felicity of the consequent. Importantly, Franke argues, “It is not the truth of the antecedent that serves to establish felicity, but rather is the mere use of the antecedent, the fact that it was produced that helps assure felicity” (Franke 2009, 275).

Let us turn to eccs. Imagine that a speaker utters (48).


Here, too, we may be inclined to reply “So what?”. What is the point of the speaker? Certainly, given what we know (as people who are in touch with academic matters), 150 seems a high number, so she may want to complain about the fact that she had to correct too many exams, but we do not have an explicit standard of comparison that highlights the importance or noteworthiness of the speaker’s assertion of q. Clearly, presenting an alternative proposition (i.e. a proposition that addresses the same QUD) uttered by another person who may also want to complain, can give us a more straightforward idea of how remarkable q is in the context of speech. In fact, it makes sense to pursue the idea that it is because someone else has uttered p that the speaker has felt the urge to beat the effect p may have in the Common Ground. So, the speaker starts a competition where the previous assertion, rendered as the antecedent (p), loses in front of the answer in q, as we will make more precise in the next section, about the rhetorical relation of adversativity.

3.4 An adversative rhetorical relation

We have so far seen that, by uttering an ecc, the speaker is expressing simultaneously her lack of commitment towards p and her commitment towards q. In this section, we show that echoicity, together with CT marking, has the rhetorical effect of an adversative relation between p and q, i.e. the one that is denoted by conjunctions such as English but or Spanish pero. More specifically, (49-a) is equivalent to (49-b).[19]


‘(lit.) If you had to correct 50 exams, I had to correct 150 exams.’


‘You may have had to correct 50 exams, but I had to correct 150.’

Remember from Subsection 3.2 that p and q address the same multiple wh-QUD. Let’s take, for instance, (50-A). In terms of discourse relations, there are two options in which the two propositions can be related, either sequentiality, (50-B1), or adversativity, (50-B2).


Sequentiality does not pose any restrictions regarding scalarity. In principle, one could reply (50-A) by saying (50-a). However, this is not possible for the adversative relation, (50-b), which suggests that eccs convey a relation such as (50-B2).

  1. He is exhausted and I am tired.

  2. ?He is exhausted, but I am tired.

In what follows, we first discuss the pragmatics of adversative but and then address the question why a conditional can have the same rhetorical effect.

3.4.1 The pragmatics of adversative ‘but’

We will take as our point of departure the analysis of adversativity of Winterstein (2012), who enriches the insights of Argumentation Theory (Anscombre and Ducrot 1977; Anscombre and Ducrot 1983) with ideas from the so-called formal approaches to contrast (Sæbø 2003; Umbach 2005).

Anscombre and Ducrot’s inferential theory about the adversative conjunction is summarized in (52).


Let p and q be two clauses, to utter p but q makes the following contribution:

  1. Presents p as a possible argument for an eventual conclusion H.

  2. Presents q as an argument against this conclusion (i.e. in favor of ¬H).

  3. Attributes to q a stronger argumentative strength in favor of ¬H that one can attribute strength of p in favor of H. The overall effect of p but q is argumentatively oriented towards ¬H. (Our translation and adaptation of Anscombre and Ducrot (1977, 28))

Later on, Merin (1999) casts Anscombre and Ducrot’s (1977, 1983) inferential theory in Decision-Theoretic Semantics, presented in (54).


For an utterance of the form p but q, there must be an argumentative goal H such that:

  1. r(p,H) > 0 and r(q,H) < 0 (or equivalently, r(q,¬H)>0)

  2. r(q,¬H)>r(p,H) (Winterstein 2012, 1875)

Merin sees argumentation as a probabilistic relation over epistemic states. He makes use of a notion of relevance, defined as a relation r between two propositions and an epistemic state, such that a sentence “E is relevant to H in a context iff learning its truth would affect the probability assigned to H” (Merin 1999, 11).[20] Under this view, relevance can be positive or negative depending on whether learning the truth of a sentence increases or decreases the probability of H. On the other hand, H stands for a hypothesis that is “abduced” by the hearer as the speaker’s argumentative goal, a highly contextual inference that is partly determined on the form of the sentence, as is further argued for in Winterstein (2012). Thus, (53) rephrases the analysis in (52), framed in Decision Theory, and introduces relevance as a probabilistic relation over epistemic states.

With an example, (54), knowing that Lemmy smokes a lot will lead us to think that the odds that he is in bad health are quite high. So, H corresponds to the inference (or argumentative goal) that Lemmy is in bad health. However, knowing that he is in good health, conveyed by the second clause, pushes for the opposite idea. Finally, the strength of q towards ¬H is higher than p towards H. Hence, the bottom line is not to worry about Lemmy.

Lemmysmokesalot,buthe’singoodhealth.(Winterstein 2012, 1865)

A similar case can be made for the sentences in (55), which are identical except for the order of appearance of each clause in the adversative structure. In (55-a), where H is something like ‘We should buy the ring’, the final recommendation is not to buy it, while in (55-b), where H would be ‘We should not buy the ring’, we are inclined to buy it.

  1. The ring is nice, but expensive.

  2. The ring is expensive, but nice.

To avoid moving away from the core topic of this paper, we cannot discuss the benefits and the problems of formal vs. argumentative theories of adversatives. We will just point out that H and the QUD are related, but only indirectly so. As mentioned, H in (55) would be something like ‘We should buy the ring’, while the QUD is ‘How is the ring?’. So, just by relying on information structure, we cannot determine H, only the QUD. However, answering the QUD is somehow related to H, since, we assume, it helps the speaker to either raise or lower the probability of H: knowing the properties of the ring can help decide whether we should buy it or not. On the other hand, while the QUD follows from the shape (the information structure) of the sentence, the goal H is highly context dependent. Thus, we can easily imagine a context in which H is ‘We should sell the ring’ instead of ‘We should buy the ring’, for instance.

In his proposal, Winterstein (2012) embraces Merin’s analysis and introduces insights from the formal theories to overcome some of the weaknesses of the argumentative approach. For instance, he aims to explain the ill-formedness of (56).


In previous argumentative accounts, it is not clear how to constrain the abduction of an H that satisfies the conditions stated in (53). So, Winterstein (2012) devises a way to restrict the activation of H, which is closely tied to the information structural properties of p and q. He considers the assertion of a proposition as an act that affects the probability of truth of other propositions; as argued for since Stalnaker (1978), assertion is an eliminative process, so the acceptance of the content of an assertion implies eliminating from the interlocutors’ epistemic state a series of possibilities that are no longer viable. Winterstein presents two different sets of propositions that can be affected by the assertion of p. One, on which we will not dwell here, is the set of propositions related to p by world knowledge (such as the relation between being hungry and eating). The second set contains propositions “whose probabilities are mechanically affected by the assertion of p.” By this, he means that the assertion of p raises the probability of any strengthening of p, p (for instance, if someone utters that she saw a car, this raises the probability that she saw a Volvo or a Ford or a Honda). All these more specific/stronger propositions are not eliminated by the assertion of p, viewed as an eliminative process. That is why, asserting p raises the probability of the truth of any p world.

Now, the number of potential p s is infinite, but it can be constrained by attending uniquely to the form of p (its content and information structural properties). In particular, one way of strengthening p is by conveying that “the focus is the only one of its kind.” Winterstein mentions two possible ways in which the focus can be unique: either by conveying that it can be the only one to have some property, or by conveying that it can be the best along some scale of value. For instance, in (57), asserting ‘Lemmy plays the bass’ raises the probability that Lemmy is the only one to play the bass (this is the stronger proposition p). Now that we have identified the possible H, we can run the mechanism described in (53).


In (57), knowing the truth that Lemmy plays the bass argues in favor (i.e. raises the probability) that he is the only one to play the bass. So, the first conjunct of (57) mechanically raises the conversational goal H ‘Lemmy is the only one to play the bass’. The second conjunct of (57) argues against such a goal. Overall, the probability that Lemmy is not the only one to play is higher than the probability that Lemmy is the only one, in view of the fact that Richie plays it too. In contrast, in (56), the mechanically raised goal ‘Lemmy is the only one who solved all the problems’ is not argued against in the second conjunct and this is why the sentence is unacceptable out of the blue.[21]

3.4.2 An adversative conditional

Note that Winterstein takes ‘Lemmy’ and ‘Richie’ to be foci in (57). We argue instead that they are Contrastive Topics, like the ones we find in eccs, which display an adversative effect comparable to that of but, as shown in (49), repeated below for convenience. We will follow Winterstein’s analysis and implement it to eccs assuming that his proposals for what he called ’focus’ can be applied to CTs.


‘(lit.) If you had to correct 50 exams, I had to correct 150 exams.’


‘You may have had to correct 50 exams, but I had to correct 150.

If we abstract away from the conditional structure in (58-a) and stick to the plain adversative structure in (58-b), Winterstein’s proposal can derive the following: knowing that you may have corrected 50 exams raises the probability that you are the only one to have reached such a milestone (H could be phrased as ‘I am the only one who works this hard.’). However, in the end, the assertion that I have corrected 150 exams argues against this inference: you are not the one who works the hardest, since my milestone is more important. Moreover, the relevance of q in favor of ¬H is higher than the relevance of p in favor of H. Thus, in both an adversative construction and an ecc, the argument in favor of H as presented by p loses in favor of the argument in favor of ¬H, presented by q.

The adversative analysis of eccs explains scalarity in the following way. If scalar terms are present in eccs, it must be the case that the one in q entails the one in p, given that q is the winning argument of the two. Let us go back to example (9), repeated below for convenience.


The sentence in (59-B’) would be ruled out because it is very difficult (i) to generate a QUD, for which both p and q are answers, and (ii) to entertain an H for which the truth of p is an argument, and q a counterargument. The case of (59-B”) is slightly different, because p and q are indeed answers to a QUD of the shape ‘Who is how tired?’. We would interpret p as an argument in favor of the interlocutor being the most tired person, and would expect q to argue against it, by asserting that someone else is even more tired (yo estoy muerto ‘I am exhausted’). By contrast, I am totally relaxed does not argue against H, which makes the adversative relation untenable. For it to hold, whenever there is a scalar term, the one in q has to entail the one in p.[22]

How about the cases in which there are no scalar terms, such as (11-a), repeated here, slightly simplified, as (60)?


Here, being tired about the prevailing cynicism and being tired of the politically correct comments are not related in any scalar fashion. However, we can still derive the meaning effects of eccs using Winterstein’s adversative theory through the following steps:

  1. Speaker A has uttered ‘I’m fed up with the prevailing cynicism’, which evokes the QUD ‘Am I fed up with the prevailing cynicism?’.

  2. Speaker B decides not to address the evoked QUD, but a related, multiple QUD of the shape ‘Who is fed up with what?’.

  3. The first conjunct of the ecc mechanically triggers the conversational goal H ‘I am the one who is more fed up with something’. So, p argues in favor of H (r(p,H) > 0).

  4. The second conjunct argues against this goal by providing evidence that Speaker B is also fed up with something. In other words, q argues against the probability that H holds (r(q,H) < 0).

  5. An inference arises such that the politically correct comments are a better reason to be fed up with that the prevailing cynicism. Thus, Speaker B treats q as making a stronger case against H than p in favor of H (r(q,¬H)>r(p,H)).

Finally, remember from Subsection 3.1 that echoicity is interpreted as a dismissal of the truth of p, because Speaker B does not publicly adhere to it even though Speaker A has proposed to introduce it to the Common Ground. Together with this, adversativity helps explain how eccs express disdain (recall property 5 in Subsection 2.1). Speaker B not only does not care to commit to p, but she also treats it as a losing argument in the opposition between p and q. Hence, p is not only irrelevant but also weak, which is compatible with using an ecc to undermine p.

To wrap up, let us go through the reasoning as to why an indicative conditional can be used to express an adversative rhetorical relation. First, recall that we have assumed a plain semantics for indicative conditionals where a dependence between p and q is not grammatically encoded. Hence, we just need to carry along the presupposition that p is possible, but the rhetorical relation between antecedent and consequent is contextually established. Second, we have argued in Subsection 3.1 that resuming a proposition intended to increase the Common Ground as the antecedent of a conditional has the effect of not committing to it. Thus, the speaker is dismissing the importance of p. Third, in view of the information structure of eccs, as characterized in Subsection 3.2, the speaker is proposing a new QUD by establishing her own inquisitive strategy, where p and q stand as alternative answers to it. To make sense of this structure, interlocutors will assume that the speaker has a more abstract communicative intention beyond her inquisitive strategy. There is a reason why she derails the ongoing QUD, dismisses p as unimportant and presents q as an alternative. We have argued that all these components put together are compatible with an adversative relation, and thus, we expect its restrictions to hold for eccs, even in the absence of the adversative conjunction but.

4 Conclusion

In this paper we have been concerned with a type of indicative conditional that had barely received any attention so far. We have identified new properties, such as scalarity and lack of dependence between p and q, and have adopted the already observed properties of echoicity and contrast.

We have proposed that eccs originate with the speaker’s wish to convey an adversative relation between two propositions, p and q, after having heard a previous interlocutor assert p, by proposing a multiple wh-QUD through Contrastive Topic marking. This rhetorical relation is possible because, even if this is a conditional structure, it does not express a dependence between p and q (lack of hypothetical relation). The fact that p is resumed by another speaker in the antecedent of a conditional (echoicity) indicates this speaker’s lack of commitment. The CT-driven QUD opposes p and q (contrast), and the adversative relation assigns q the role of the stronger argument given a contextually determined conversational goal. The speaker does not only express lack of commitment, but treats p as a worse argument than q (disdain). When p and q have a scalar term in focus position, the more informative term must be in q (scalarity).

There remain several open issues for future research. For instance, given that our account of eccs is based on pragmatic reasoning, why are there languages that do not allow for an ecc interpretation of conditionals? A possible way to answer this question would be to examine further the relationship between eccs and other interpretations of conditionals (such as the metalinguistic or the epistemic interpretation), which seem to be available in a larger number of languages.


We thank two anonymous reviewers for their critical remarks and suggestions, which have helped to improve a previous version of the article. We are also grateful to the audiences of the 47th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages, held at the U. of Delaware, and of the Workshop “Non-At-Issue Meaning and Information Structure” held at the U. of Oslo, for insightful remarks on previous stages of this work. Of course, we are responsible for any remaining mistakes. This research has been partially supported by projects MEAT - FFI2015-66732-P and CORE-IS FFI2015-67991-P, funded by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness and the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER, UE), projects VASTRUD - PGC2018-096870-B-100 and QUDLE - PGC2018-094029-A-I00, funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities (MiCIU) / Spanish Research Agency (AEI) and FEDER, UE, the IT769-13 Research Group (Basque Government), and UFI11/14 (University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU).


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Published Online: 2019-06-26
Published in Print: 2019-11-26

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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