Representing epistemic constructions as triadic relations

Epistemic constructions are commonly represented as dyadic relations between a marker, often called the ‘modal’, and a scope, often called the ‘prejacent’ of the relation (see among others, von Fintel (2005)). The marker is the element of the construction responsible for attributing a truth value to a propositional content; the scope is the propositional content evaluated by the marker. A formalization of this view of epistemic construction is given in (1):

(1) epc = [probably]m ([it is the postman])s

We prefer to represent epistemic (and, more generally, modal) constructions as complex constructions consisting of a marker, a scope and a relation between the marker and the scope. The relation between the marker and the scope is in our view an essential element of the epistemic construction characterized by precise formal properties, which encodes per se the operation of epistemic (or more generally modal) evaluation. Let us justify our proposition.

It happens quite frequently in the negotiation of epistemic (or more generally modal) commitments that one and the same scope receives more than one evaluation. Consider the following example (2):

(2) C: dovevano venire a leggerla quanto meno A: no anche se non veniva<no> si’ dovevano veni’ a leggerla C: cosi’ almeno si sapeva

C: they were supposed to come and read it at least A: no even if they did not come yes they were supposed to come and read it C: at least as far as we know

It is clear here that the same scope, i.e., the proposition [they come to read it] is attributed five different truth values by the five different markers, the modal dovevano ‘were supposed to’, the pragmatic marker no ‘no’, the pragmatic marker si’, ‘yes’, the list construction dovevano veni’ a leggerla dovevano veni’ a leggerla defined by the dialogic repetition of dovevano veni a leggerla  and the utterance cosi almeno si sapeva ‘at least this what we were told’. In other words in this exchange, one and the same scope enters five different epistemic constructions. It would not make sense to try to establish the truth-value of the scope independently of the construction in which it is included. It is clear in this case that the epistemic evaluation cannot be conceived as a property of the scope (which indeed receives several evaluations).

It would also be awkward to regard the epistemic evaluation as a property of the marker. As shown in  …, for example, one and the same marker, in this case the complement-taking predicate ‘I think’ may or may not attribute a truth value to its scope (in other words may or may not be epistemic) depending on the semantic nature of the scope . The literature, on the other hand, has shown many cases of markers whose epistemic value is only contextually determined (see for example the modal verbs that can be either epistemic or deontic depending on the semantic nature of the predication they scope over).

The epistemic evaluation is therefore better regarded as a function fulfilled by the overall construction consisting of the marker, the scope and the relation holding between them rather than as a function fulfilled by either the marker or the scope. We represent therefore epistemic constructions as in (3):

(3) epc = ([probably]m ([it is the postman]s)) epc


Paola Pietrandrea

See also P. Pietrandrea (submitted) Epistemic constructions at work. A corpus study on spoken Italian dialogues.


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