February 07, 2004

Even if

Brian linked to On the Contribution of Conditional Then by Sabine Iatridou. Iatridou discusses why "then" is disallowed in many "if"-sentences, and proposes (roughly) that "If p, then q" presupposes that there are some cases in which ~p and ~q are both true.

Brian points out that, though "even if" conditionals don't allow "then," they don't support Iatridou's thesis, because sometimes you can say "even if p, q" without presupposing q.

My proposal in Brian's comments was that "Even if p, q" expresses a contrast with some presupposed conditional, "If r, q." Often that will be "If ~p, q"--in which case q is presupposed (entailed?)--but not always.

I'd like to develop that a bit and see if it stands up.

Iatridou mentions that "the use of even is associated with the existence of a scale of expectation, with the associate of even--in our case the if-clause--at the lowest point" (p. 175). So "Even if p, q" will be felicitous when q is to be expected given ~p, but more surprising given p. In this case, there are two possibilities, ~p and p, with ~p at the top of the scale and p at the bottom.

This makes it natural to think of "even if" sentences against the background of a range of possible antecedents (not just the sentence and its negation). In Brian's example, the antecedents range over members of the boss's family, with the most distant relatives at the bottom of the scale:

(1) If you flirt with the boss's wife, you'll be fired. If you flirt with the boss's daughter, you'll be fired. Even if you flirt with the boss's second cousin once removed, you'll be fired.

But since it's not presupposed that you flirt with any of the boss's relatives--the scale doesn't comprise an exhaustive list of possibilities--the "even if" doesn't presuppose that you'll be fired.

It's natural to use "only" or "as many as" with "even if," depending on whether the scale of expectation goes up or down:

(2) Even if only five people show up to my talk, I'll be happy. (cf. "Even if you only flirt with the boss's second cousin...") (3) Even if as many as fifty people show up to my talk, I'll have enough handouts.

In this case, it doesn't even seem as though the associate of "even" is at the bottom of the scale of expectation--just lower than what's presupposed. So in (2), it might be obvious that I'd be happy if 100 people came to my talk; in (3), it might be obvious that I'd have enough handouts for ten people. Here there is an exhaustive scale, but I'm not committed to anything farther down the scale of expectation than stated in the antecedent of the "even if."

Maybe I should try out an example, in case anyone has read this far. What is presupposed or implied by:

(4) Even if the Democrats nominate Lieberman, I'll vote for him.

Well, first, the false statement that the Democrats might nominate Lieberman (sorry Joe!). I also think it presupposes that there is some Democrat who I like more than Lieberman, but not that I will vote for any Democratic nominee. The contrast is between

(4') If the Democrats nominate Lieberman, I'll vote for him

and other conditionals that are higher up the expectation scale; but it doesn't imply that (4') is rock bottom on the expectation scale, so it doesn't imply that I will vote for any Democratic nominee.

So far I'm pretty happy with this, but we'll see what the pros have to say, if they stop by.

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 7, 2004 05:02 PM

In (4) the anaphoric pronoun 'him' really has to be read as a quantificational variable for this to make any sense at all. If you read it as directly denoting Lieberman, the contrasts are

a. If the Democrats nominate Kerry, I'll vote for Lieberman.
b. If the Democrats nominate Edwards, I'll vote for Lieberman.
c. If the Democrats nominate Dean, I'll vote for Lieberman.

That's odd I think.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at February 8, 2004 12:26 AM

True enough. "I'm voting Democratic even if they nominate Lieberman" would avoid that effect, but (4) as written does have this odd feature. Do you think this means that in

(5) If the Democrats nominate Kerry, of course I'm voting for him. Even if the Democrats nominate Lieberman, I'm voting for him.

we have to read the first "him" as quantificational, too?

You can perhaps create the same effect with VP ellipsis:

(6) Even if we decide to go to "Cabin Boy," I'm going

where I'd guess that ordinarily we would fill in the ellipsis as "I'm going to 'Cabin Boy.'" But perhaps I'm wrong about that.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at February 9, 2004 08:51 AM