Mental spaces in grammar

Mental spaces in grammar: Conditional constructions. By Barbara Dancygier and Eve Sweetser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 295. ISBN 0521844681. $90 (Hb).

Reviewed by Alexander Onysko, University of Innsbruck

Dancygier and Sweetser explore the multiple manifestations of conditional constructions in English. In contrast to truth conditional and modular approaches, D&S emphasize the importance of taking a holistic perspective on conditionals integrating the domains of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Mental space theory offers an appropriate framework for such an integrative and contextual treatment of conditionality. The essence of the theory as employed by D&S is that conditional constructions involve the building or evocation of a mental space in the protasis of the conditional (P-clause), which forms the background for the construal of the apodosis (Q-clause): if P, (then) Q, for example, if we leave the window open, it will be so hot (11). According to this fundamental understanding of space building and evocation, D&S distinguish between different types of mental spaces in conditional constructions: content types such as predictive conditionals (cf. the example above) and noncontent types like speech-act conditionals (e.g. if you need any help, my name is Ann, p. 110), epistemic conditionals (e.g. if he typed her thesis, he loves her, p. 117), metalinguistic conditionals (if we were speaking Spanish, he would be your uncle, p. 127), and metametaphoric conditionals (e.g. if the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge is the thoroughbred of bridges, the Bay Bridge is the workhorse, p. 132).

The analysis of these different types of conditionals is closely linked to a discussion of the various lexical markers of conditionality and causality (if, if…then, unless, even if, if only, only if, when, since, because). While there is overlap in the functions of these conjunctions, D&S clearly delineate specific properties of the individual elements. Thus, the quality of epistemic stance distinguishes if (neutral or negative epistemic stance) from when (positive epistemic stance). Further distinctions are drawn along the lines of referential uniqueness (even if, only if, then, if only), causality (because, since), temporality (when), and exceptional space building (unless, except if).

Conditionality is also marked by the sequence of verb tenses in protases and apodoses. As the authors cogently argue, verb tense is primarily dependent on epistemic stance and epistemic distance, that is, the likelihood of the realization of the constructed space. Since verb tense in conditionals can also relate to the time frame of the speech act, disambiguation of the function of verb tense is necessary in the context of the speech situation. On a related note, D&S explain the relation between verb tense and the type of conditional construction. Thus, noncontent types such as speech-act conditionals and epistemic conditionals allow a free sequencing of tenses in protases and apodoses, since no space-immanent predictive relationship holds between the two.

This brief sketch of some of the main claims in the book is representative of the topics that D&S deal with in its ten well-balanced chapters. Apart from providing a lucid analysis of the core questions of conditionality, D&S branch out to cover specialized constructions (e.g. should, was to/were to), and they devote a chapter to the expression of conditional meaning in coordinate constructions (e.g. he makes one mistake and he’ll be out, p. 240). Overall, D&S convincingly guide the reader through the realm of English conditionals. Their study is a solid foundation for further crosslinguistic research of conditional constructions from the perspective of mental space theory.