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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2009

3 - Tense, epistemic distance, and embedded spaces


“If I'd seen the machete, I'd have handled it differently.”

(Headline, Vancouver Sun, June 6, 2001)

The polysemy of past-tense forms

As noted at the end of the last chapter, distanced future-reference conditionals use past-tense forms rather than future ones. Out of context, (1) could be an assessment of future eventualities, viewed with negative epistemic stance:

(1) If he decided to file the suit, the hospital's lawyers would be allowed to interview him for discovery.

However, (1) could equally well be a past narrative description of a conditional situation – a situation which was neutral in stance and future relative to the characters' situation.), only context tells us whether the past-tense verb forms are marking tense or epistemic stance. Fleischman (1989) has discussed the pervasive crosslinguistic correlation between past-tense marking and distanced stance. It has also been noted that tense marking is one of the most basic cues for relationships between mental spaces (Fauconnier 1985 [1994], 1997; Cutrer 1994; Mejías-Bikandi 1996).

In Example (2) there is no ambiguity. The conditional presented is in past-tense form not because it is distanced epistemically, but because it is embedded in a past-tense narrative space.

(2) The gun had dug a deep bruise into my side when I tumbled from the boxcar. I'd be sore for four or five days, but if I was careful I'd be okay … Lotty dispensed that verdict at her clinic Sunday afternoon …

(SP. HT.233)
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Mental Spaces in Grammar
  • Online ISBN: 9780511486760
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