Modeling progress: causal models and the imperfective paradox

Prerna Nadathur

Ohio State University

Friday, February 16, 2024
12:30 p.m.–2 p.m.

Lattimore 201

Under progressive marking, telic predicates (e.g., write a novel, build a house) can describe eventualities that fail to reach 'expected' points of culmination: this phenomenon is known as the imperfective paradox (Dowty 1979).  Prominent approaches to the paradox associate the truth of these progressives with the likelihood of future culmination; this is achieved by means of an intensional progressive operator, which instantiates culminated eventualities (complete novel-writings or house-buildings) across modal alternatives to the evaluation world.  This explanation faces empirical challenges from the acceptability of telic progressives (e.g., Mira was crossing a minefield) for which successful culmination is extremely unlikely or even locally out of reach.
We propose a new approach, on which the truth of a telic progressive does not depend on the likeliness of culmination, but instead on a match between what is going on at reference time and a notion of how particular culminations typically come about.  We suggest that telic predicates reference event types, understood as idealized causal models in which the relevant culmination condition occurs when particular sets of (preparatory) conditions c0-occur.  The event type model captures world knowledge about the structure of complex events, encoding a set of 'recipes' (causal pathways) by which the appropriate culmination is typically achieved.  A telic progressive claim like Mira was crossing a minefield does not express the speaker's expectation that Mira will eventually reach the other side of the field, but instead (roughly speaking) the belief that Mira's reference-time activities correspond to some portion of a causal pathway for reaching the other side (i.e., that she is engaging in a plausible process for culmination).  
The approach delivers improved judgements for challenging imperfective paradox data, by severing the truth of telic progressives from the local accessibility of culmination and assigning the intensional element of 'paradox' effects to the structure of telic predicates themselves.  Looking ahead, it suggests a new approach to the denotation of eventuality predicates, on which familiar aspectual class properties can be derived from features of (language-independent) causal models which capture common-sense intuitions and idealizations about how the world works, and how complex events are typically realized or brought about.