Reference to Possible Worlds

In modal subordination, a modal sentence is interpreted relative to a hypothetical scenario introduced in an earlier sentence. In this paper, I argue that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the interpretation of modals is an ANAPHORIC process. Modal morphemes introduce sets of possible worlds, representing alternative hypothetical scenarios, as entities into the discourse model. Their interpretation depends on evoking sets of worlds recording described and reference scenarios, and relating such sets to one another using familiar notions of restricted, preferential quantification. This proposal relies on an extended model of environments in dynamic semantics to keep track of associations between possible worlds and ordinary individuals; it assumes that modal meanings and other lexical meanings encapsulate quantification over possible worlds. These two innovations are required in order for modals to refer to sets of possible worlds directly as static objects in place of the inherently dynamic objects—quite different from the referents of pronouns and tenses—used in previous accounts. The simpler proposal that results offers better empirical coverage and suggests a new parallel between modal and temporal interpretation.
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