What ifs

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Justin Bledin
Kyle Rawlins


We develop a dynamic account of what if questions on which they re-pose questions inside local contexts introduced by their if-clauses subject to the felicity constraint that the resulting context is inquisitive. While this analysis is directly motivated by cases where a what if questioner challenges another speaker’s attempt to answer a current question under discussion (QUD) by seeming to re-ask this question over a more restricted contextual domain, it can also explain the flexibility of what if since other uses trigger accommodation with new QUDs to ensure that the post-suppositional inquisitivity condition is met. While QUD accommodation is a complex phenomenon that isn’t specific to just what if constructions, the pragmatic flexibility of what if furnishes a nice range of examples for investigating such repair. In the latter part of the paper, we focus on practical what if questions which trigger accommodation with QUDs that subserve the real-world domain goals of the speakers. We offer a systematic working theory of this accommodation within a formal model of discourse that involves goal stacks populated with both questions and decision problems tethered together by relevance. The larger contribution of this paper is to add to the understanding of how discourse felicity and update conditions at the level of speech acts can be encoded in natural languages. 

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Justin Bledin, Johns Hopkins University

Assistant Professor, Philosophy Department