Polarity reversal and scalarity in counterfactuals

Cleo Condoravdi (Stanford University)
Event time: 
Monday, September 16, 2019 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Dow Hall (DOW) See map
370 Temple Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

Polarity reversal and scalarity in counterfactuals
Positive polarity items (PPIs) can exceptionally appear with
clause-mate negation in the antecedent of counterfactual conditionals.
This is an instance of a phenomenon termed ‘polarity reversal’ by
Baker (1970) and is exemplified with the PPI already in (1).
(1) If she had not arrived already, we would have postponed the
Baker’s generalization was that PPIs can be in the scope of negation
in the antecedent of a conditional if and only if the conditional
presupposes the prejacent of the negation, e.g., in (1) that she had
already arrived. Taking this generalization for granted, more recent
work has attributed the phenomenon to a special kind of negation,
either ‘light negation’, presupposing its prejacent (Schwarz & Bhatt
2006, Ippolito & Su 2014), or ‘high negation’, denoting FALSUM and
conveying a speaker bias toward the truth of its prejacent (Romero
In this talk, I argue that the phenomenon is the result of the lexical
semantics of PPIs and the interpretation of counterfactuals, with
negation being regular truth-functional negation. Taking PPIs to be
associated with alternatives and to give rise to scalar assertions, I
show that polarity reversal results in scalar assertions, because in
making a counterfactual assumption any contextual entailments are
given up once the information that gives rise to them is revised.
This alternative analysis derives the connection between polarity
reversal and counterfactuality on the basis of how asserting the
conditional in a context which is compatible with its antecedent
influences the relation between the ordinary content of the
conditional and the content of its alternatives. Consequently, the
counterfactuality of the negated clause is not necessary for polarity
reversal. This is an empirically welcome result: a conditional with
polarity reversal in the antecedent is in fact acceptable when the
negated clause is compatible with the context, or even presupposed, as
long as the entire antecedent is counterfactual.

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