Present Indicative Counterfactuals

Sun Apr 18, 2004

Commenting on my “If you’re Lance Armstrong …” post, Thony Gillies points out that this Hubie Brown-type conditional is a special case of the sportscasterese present indicative counterfactual conditional. As in (topical example from today’s Red Sox game, after Manny Ramirez made a spectacular catch running into the Green Monster in the 9th inning, protecting a slim Sox lead):

If Ramirez doesn’t catch that, it’s a double and the tying run is in scoring position.”

Apropos my little working paper from 1997 on The Presupposition of Subjunctive Conditionals, I had a brief email exchange with Larry Horn about this kind of conditional. Here are some passages from my main message to Larry and his responses:

At 4:06 PM -0400 5/22/98, Kai von Fintel wrote:

Dear Larry —

thanks for your message. As an absolutely incorrigible sports addict, I have been struck by this construction many times. [It first struck me at the same time when I realized that the NFL was using instant replay to ascertain the truth of such counterfactuals as “If Sanders hadn’t pushed Rice, he would have come down inbounds”.]

Actually, upon further review I do not agree with your assessment:

[Larry had tried to convince me that “The existence of this construction clearly forces the severance of grammatical mood from the semantico-pragmatics of counterfactuality. There’s no presupposition, conventional implicature, whatever, in these cases of indicative “if p (then) q” that p is epistemically possible.”]

  1. First possible response (not one I would be attracted to): this construction is ungrammatical, these guys are confused. Hence nothing follows about grammar.

Serious question: this seems much more localized to sportscasters than for example the reporter’s simple present, which also surfaces in stage directions and other circumstances (which has led people to actually propose funky semantic analyses of this use of the simple present). How widespread is this counterfactual indicative?

[Larry responded: “That is an interesting question. I’ll raise it on ADS-L, where we had an earlier discussion of the PICFC (as I’ll abbreviate the construction), since this would be an interesting sort of isogloss. All other cases of sportscasterese (not just the “shazam historical present” that Erich Woisetschlaeger and John Goldsmith discussed a decade or two back, but also e.g. the extension of certain currency descriptions for other uses: “he’s hitting a buck fifty”; “there’s a buck ten left in the quarter”; “a cornerback weighing a buck seventy-five taking down a tank like Ironhead!”) or sportsplayerese (“my bad”) are attested elsewhere, but I haven’t come across PICFCs outside of SportsWorld.”]

  1. Second possible response (somewhat more believable, but still not great): these are run-of-the-mill indicative conditionals with a presumption of epistemic possibility. They would receive an analysis along the lines of the historical present tense, whatever that may be. Something like: “present” with respect to a temporarily assumed/imagined speech time (which is actually in the past of the real speech time), “epistemically possible” with respect to a temporarily assumed/imagined epistemic state (which is actually one that the speaker knows s/he’s not in (anymore)). This is the kind of move that I report in my subjunctive paper as the move favored by Portner for why some “subjunctives” do not seem straightforwardly “counterfactual”, according to him they are counterfactual but only with respect to a temporarily assumed point of view.

  2. Third possible response (perhaps the one I would spend most energy on if I were to expand my paper to include discussion of this construction): I say in my paper that indicatives do not actually carry any direct presupposition/implicature. Subjunctives do. And it is the choice of an indicative over a subjunctive that may usually be interpreted as indicating epistemic possibility. In other words, subjunctives are marked and only good for uses where (at least some) worlds outside the set of epistemically possible worlds are quantified over. Indicatives are unmarked and thus in principle usable in many more circumstances; but of course usual considerations will limit their use.

There’s possibly quite a lot more to say about this construction. For example, one might wonder whether it could be used in the Anderson-type argument:

“If he had taken arsenic, he would show exactly these symptoms.”

This is impossible in a normal indicative:

“??If he took arsenic, he shows exactly these symptoms.”

But now imagine a sportscaster who hasn’t paid much attention to what is happening peripherally to the game. Rodman totally flips out and throws the ball at some spectators. Now, one thing that would explain his behavior is that he was heckled. Can our sportscaster say:

“If Rodman is heckled by the guy, he does exactly this. So, perhaps he was heckled.”

[Larry replied: “Funny you should bring these up. On the example-laden scrap paper I was typing my message from, I had an observation to the effect that Anderson-type non-CF contexts are impossible with PICFCs, but then I started to doubt the conclusion, although my Andersonesque examples weren’t as convincing as yours. Another context would be the SportsCenter replay: Dan Patrick says Rodman should be suspended for his antics, but Kenny Mayne points out that they don’t have complete footage of what preceded the incident—after all, [your PICFC here].”]

Anyway, thanks again for your message. If I expand the paper for publication in a journal, I will try to take this construction into account.

which I never did.

I double-checked the archives of the ADS-L list, but no new insights into this constructions seem to have turned up, except the tip that David Carkeet, author of various novels with a linguist hero, mentioned the construction in a New York Times “On Language” column on July 22, 2000.