Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals: A study of truth conditionality and minimal change

Ivano Ciardelli, Linmin Zhang, Lucas Champollion

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Based on a crowdsourced truth value judgment experiment, we provide empirical evidence challenging two classical views in semantics, and we develop a novel account of counterfactuals that combines ideas from inquisitive semantics and causal reasoning. First, we show that two truth-conditionally equivalent clauses can make different semantic contributions when embedded in a counterfactual antecedent. Assuming compositionality, this means that the meaning of these clauses is not fully determined by their truth conditions. This finding has a clear explanation in inquisitive semantics: truth-conditionally equivalent clauses may be associated with different propositional alternatives, each of which counts as a separate counterfactual assumption. Second, we show that our results contradict the common idea that the interpretation of a counterfactual involves minimizing change with respect to the actual state of affairs. We propose to replace the idea of minimal change by a distinction between foreground and background for a given counterfactual assumption: the background is held fixed in the counterfactual situation, while the foreground can be varied without any minimality constraint.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)577-621
    Number of pages45
    JournalLinguistics and Philosophy
    Issue number6
    StatePublished - Dec 1 2018


    • Causal reasoning
    • Counterfactuals
    • Crowdsourcing survey
    • Disjunctive antecedents
    • Experimental semantics
    • Inquisitive semantics
    • Minimal change semantics
    • Ordering semantics

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Philosophy
    • Linguistics and Language


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