If-conditionals and modality: a corpus-based investigation

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A number of studies on modality and/or conditionals have presented the claim that conditionals are intimately connected to modality (Comrie, 1986: 89; Dancygier, 1998: 72; Huddleston & Pullum, 2002: 741; Nuyts, 2001: 352; Palmer, 1986: 189; Sweetser, 1990: 141); however, the nature of that connection has not been investigated empirically. This paper reports on parts of a larger study which empirically tested the above claim – namely the corpus-based approach and metrics developed in the study, as well as some significant findings. More specifically, the paper examines whether, and to what extent, this relationship ... a. holds for all conditionals, irrespective of their subordinator (e.g. if, in case, unless); b. extends to concessive-conditionals (e.g. even if); c. is limited to conditionals (and concessive-conditionals), or extends to other constructions sharing subordinators with conditionals (e.g. indirect interrogatives with if). d. holds for either of the two parts of bi-partite constructions (e.g. protasis and apodosis in conditionals; Fillmore, 1986). In the case of if-conditionals, the paper also examines the extent to which this relationship applies to their two basic types, direct and indirect (Quirk et al., 1985: 1088-1097). The methodology combines a corpus-based, quantitative approach with close analysis of the data for the purposes of the annotation of modal marking in all corpus samples, and the classification of if-conditionals. The study uses eleven random samples from the written BNC, containing the following: a. All types of constructions, providing an indication of the average frequency of modal marking in written British English –which was used as the baseline; b. Non-conditional constructions, taken collectively; c. Conditional constructions (e.g. assuming, if, unless); d. Conditional-concessive constructions with even if and whether; e. Indirect interrogative (non-conditional) constructions with if and whether; f. Constructions with when and whenever (used as conjunctions), as they have been presented as synonymous with unmodalised if-conditionals in some studies (e.g. Athanasiadou & Dirven, 1996: 617, 1997: 62; Palmer, 1990: 174-175). The analysis revealed that the modal load (i.e. the extent of modal marking) in conditionals as a construction family, and if-conditionals in particular, is significantly higher than the baseline and non-conditional constructions (taken collectively), as well as most, but not all, non-conditional constructions. More importantly, if-conditionals showed a distinctly higher modal load than other conditional constructions. Overall, constructions of the same family tend to have similar modal load; however, this is not consistently the case with individual constructions within a family. Also, constructions across and within bi-partite families show different ratios of modal load in their two parts. More importantly, the protases of if-conditionals have a modal load at least equal to that of the baseline, and, in some cases, significantly higher – despite protases being already modally marked by if. References Athanasiadou, A. & Dirven, R. (1996). Typology of if-clauses. In Casad, E.H. (Ed.), Cognitive Linguistics in the Redwoods: The expansion of a new paradigm in linguistics. Cognitive Linguistics Research 6 (pp. 609-654). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Athanasiadou, A. & Dirven, R. (1997). Conditionality, hypotheticality, counterfactuality. In Athanasiadou, A. & Dirven, R. (Eds.), On Conditionals Again (pp. 61–96). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Comrie, B. (1986) Conditionals: A typology. In Traugott, E.C., Meulen, A., Reilly, J.S. & Ferguson, C.A. (Eds.), On Conditionals (pp. 77-99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dancygier, B. (1998). Conditionals and Prediction: Time, knowledge and causation in conditional constructions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fillmore, C.J. (1986). Varieties of conditional sentences. Eastern States Conference on Linguistics, Vol. 3, 163-182. Huddleston, R. & Pullum, G.K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nuyts, J. (2001). Epistemic Modality, Language, and Conceptualization. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Palmer, F.R. (1986). Mood and Modality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Palmer, F.R. (1990). Modality and the English Modals (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman. Sweetser, E.E. (1990). From Etymology to Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2011
EventCorpus Linguistics 2011 - Birmingham, United Kingdom
Duration: 20 Jul 201122 Jul 2011


OtherCorpus Linguistics 2011
CountryUnited Kingdom

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  • Research Output

    Conditionals, modality, and Schrödinger’s cat: Conditionals as a family of linguistic qubits

    Gabrielatos, C., 22 Apr 2020, (Accepted/In press) Re-assessing Modalising Expressions: Categories, Co-text, and Context. Hohaus, P. & Schulze, R. (eds.). John Benjamins

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

  • If-conditionals and Modality: Frequency patterns and theoretical explanations

    Gabrielatos, C., 9 Dec 2019, In : Journal of English Linguistics. 47, 4, p. 301-334 34 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Open Access
  • 2 Citations (Scopus)
    126 Downloads (Pure)

    Pedagogy-driven corpus-based lexicogrammar

    Gabrielatos, C., 31 Jul 2018.

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceKeynote

  • Activities

    • 2 Invited talk

    If-Conditionals and Modality: Description and Pedagogy

    Costas Gabrielatos (Invited speaker)

    4 Dec 2019

    Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


    Lexicogrammar: Lexical Grammar or Construction Grammar? Two corpus-based case studies

    Costas Gabrielatos (Invited speaker)

    25 Apr 2019

    Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


    Cite this

    Gabrielatos, C. (2011). If-conditionals and modality: a corpus-based investigation. Paper presented at Corpus Linguistics 2011, Birmingham, United Kingdom.