Most Australians

In Seminar 2 we opined that there is a difference, which we think our theory explains, between the natural interpretation of

Most Australians won’t know the ODI result

and  the natural interpretation of

Most Australians wouldn’t know the ODI result.

Agents Kelly and Gombrich demur.  They discern ‘no real difference’ between the two messages, and they also opine that the vast majority of English speakers would discern no real difference either. 

They may well be correct in both these claims.  For the first, we have their word on the matter.  For the second, we have yet to gather the evidence.  But we would not be shocked to find that it was true.  (Of course,  it would not be enough to just offer the two sentences to a panel drawn from a cross-section of English speakers and ask if they could spot a difference.  The experimental procedure would have to be very carefully designed).  But suppose that a carefully designed experiment endorsed the suspicions of Agents Kelly and Gombrich.  What then?

We can at least report that there are many English speakers who do discern a difference.  Over the years we have run this pair of sentences (or something similar) past some 500 Oxford undergraduates, and Victor Dudman has done the same with generations of students at Macquarie.  And the vast majority of our respondents report a difference.  Pre-theoretically, they are unable to articulate the difference, but overwhelmingly they report that the second of the pair ‘seems to be conveying something about most Australians’, in a way that the first does not. 

So it looks as though there is at least a phenomenon demanding explanation.  Even if that phenomenon is confined to the adjudications of a (smallish) subset of native speakers.  And indeed, Agents Kelly and Gombrich were not quite willing to assert that there is no difference whatsoever between the two messages.  Hence the scare quotes around ‘no real difference’ above.  An exacter appreciation of their deposition would be that any difference between the two would have no real significance to either speaker or hearer.  And that most speakers and most hearers would be indifferent to any alleged difference. 

Well, we could certainly live with those weakened claims.  If there is a difference here, it is clearly a subtle one.  Barely significant, perhaps, even to those who craft their sentences with a diamond-cutter’s eye for exactness. And insignificant to anyone else.  (And so it will turn out, below).  But there are parallel differences which are not quite so fine. In pursuit of our claim that there is a difference between the two messages we offer the following pair of sentences:

An Arsenal-United final will be a fitting climax to the season
An Arsenal-United final would be a fitting climax to the season

Again, the only difference here is over the selection between aboriginal and transported forms for the modal. But it is a matter of observation that those of us found asserting the second before the finalists are decided will be found to switch to the first thereafter. (Unless, of course, one of our favoured teams has been ejected from the competition, whereupon we switch instead to asserting A Chelsea-United final would have been a fitting climax to the season).  Since we do thus switch, there must be some difference.  Or what about these two:

If war is declared tommorow I will enlist immediately
If war was declared tomorrow I would enlist immediately

This pair likewise must encode some palpable difference, because the first is what we expect to hear in times of international tension and mobilising armies, whereas the second is more natural in times of peace and international harmony.  Or again, look at

If I win the Lottery on Wednesday I will buy a Steinway
If I won the Lottery on Wednesday I would buy a Steinway

The inveterate Lottery fanatic might use either, indifferently, as with our Australians above, but the second is much likelier than the first on the lips of a confirmed non-gambler.  So again there must be a difference. 

And it looks as though there is a systematic difference.  In each of our pairs, the only difference between the sentences is the selection of the aboriginal form ‘will‘ versus the transported form ‘would‘.  Whatever it is that is thus conveyed, it ought to remain invariant across our four examples (basic principle of code-breaking).

Now, our theory of Tense and Time dictates that the only difference between the corresponding messages is tense.  And since tense is always time, the difference between the messages is that one encodes an item of present temporal intelligence, and the other an item of  past temporal intelligence.  The question is: how could this explain the observed phenomena?

To be continued, in: Most Australians … gamble

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