Kyle Rawlins

Associate Professor, Cognitive Science Department

Unconditionals and conditionals

Much of my work (including my dissertation) has involved the syntax and semantics of conditionals, unconditionals, and related constructions.


I am broadly interested in “non-canonical” conditionals — conditional-like structures that don’t consist of an ordinary English “if”-adjunct with a main clause. See also my work on Questions.

Conditional questions and related:

  • (2017) What if workshop, University of Toronto, “Asking what ifs”. [slides]. Joint work with Justin Bledin.
  • (2016) Conditionals at the crossroads, University of Konstanz, “What ifs”. [slides. Joint work with Justin Bledin.
  • (2011) DGfS Context workshop, “Even questions and context. [slides]
  • (2010) WCCFL 28, “What if?”. [handout]
  • (2010) SALT 20, “Conversational backoff”. [SALT paper, handout]
  • (2008) Isaacs and Rawlins, “Conditional questions”, Journal of Semantics (special volume on Language Under Uncertainty). [Paper with our formatting]
  • (2005/2008) Isaacs and Rawlins, “Speech acts under “if”-clauses”, proceedings of CLS 41.


Whether or not Joanna comes to the party, it will be fun. (alternative unconditional)
Whoever Joanna brings to the party, it will be fun. (constituent unconditional)
Whoever Joanna brings to the party will be fun. (free relative)
Who on earth will Joanna bring to the party? (enhanced ignorance question)

I argue that unconditional adjuncts internally have the structure and interpretation of interrogative/question clauses. This leads to the introduction of alternatives into the compositional interpretation of the sentence. Externally, they fall into the broad class of conditional constructions, and so serve to restrict the domain of an operator. Because of the exhaustive alternative structure, however, they effectively unrestrict the domain of the operator, leading to the implication that it doesn’t matter which alternative is the correct one. I also give an account of the meaning of “-ever”, discussing “-ever” free relatives, “-ever” and epithet questions, and the connection to the semantics of free choice. A key result is that unconditionals can be treated in a completely uniform way with “if”-conditionals, in terms of the external syntax and semantics.

The work on unconditionals stems from a broader interest in “non-canonical” conditional constructions. A tremendous amount has been written on conditionals, but the vast majority is focused entirely on English declarative sentences with “if”-clause adjuncts. Linguistically, this is an extremely narrow focus, as natural language is rich in constructions that seem to pattern with “if”-clause conditionals, and should be called conditionals in some sense. In my dissertation I argue that unconditionals should be viewed as a species of conditional. A few other English examples are the weak adjuncts made well-known by Stump’s dissertation (Standing on a chair, Alfonso can touch the ceiling.), infinitival adjuncts, which have seen some recent interest (To get to Harlem, you have to take the A-train), and comparative conditionals (The more you eat, the fatter you get).

On unconditionals generally:

On enhanced ignorance questions (“wh-the-hell” etc.):

  • (future) Paper version coming soon! For now see ch. 3 of my dissertation or one of the following handouts/slides.
  • (2012) Slides from a talk at the University of Goettingen.
  • (2009) LSA talk

On free relatives:

  • (2010) Handout from a talk at the workshop on epistemic indefinites, Goettingen.
  • (2010) Handout from a talk at the workshop on alternative semantics in Nantes.
  • (2009) Handout for talk given in a seminar at MIT, fall 2009.