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Making the Question Under Discussion explicit shifts counterfactual interpretation


The comprehension of counterfactual statements (‘If there had been zebras, there would have been lions’) has been subject to much research, but two key questions remain: Can comprehenders interpret counterfactuals without relying on causal inferences? And can comprehenders reach the actual state interpretation relying only on grammatical cues, or is this interpretation triggered by communicative goals? We answer these questions by relying on non-causal counterfactuals, and by manipulating the Question under Discussion between experiments: In Exp. 1, we replicate Orenes et al. (2019), using a web-based eye-tracking paradigm. In Exp. 2, we make the QuD explicit by asking about the actual state of affairs. The results reveal that making a contextually relevant alternative explicit via the QuD shifts counterfactual interpretation, but in general, the suppositional state interpretation is preferred in non-causal counterfactuals. These results imply that the driving forces behind counterfactual processing are pragmatic, not syntactic.

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