Desire, belief, and semantic composition: variation in mood selection with desire predicates

Paul Portner, Aynat Rubinstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mood selection properties of desire verbs provide a rich source of evidence regarding the semantics of propositional attitudes. This paper approaches the topic by providing an analysis of crosslinguistic variation in the selection patterns of the desire verbs ‘want’ and ‘hope’, focusing on Spanish and French. There is no evidence that the meanings of ‘hope’ and ‘want’ differ between these languages, and yet in Spanish esperar ‘hope’ and querer ‘want’ both take subjunctive, while in French only vouloir ‘want’ selects subjunctive and espérer ‘hope’ strongly prefers the indicative. The inclination of ‘hope’ toward the indicative is manifest also in other Romance languages. Previous theories tie mood selection tightly to the verb’s modal backgrounds and do not anticipate such variation. We explain the consistency in mood selection with ‘want’ versus the variation with ‘hope’ in terms of two key ideas: (i) moods are modal operators that encode different degrees of modal necessity, and (ii) modal backgrounds can be manipulated by the grammar. In terms of (i), we argue, building on the comparison-based theory of mood, that the indicative is a strong necessity operator, while the subjunctive encodes a weaker necessity. Regarding (ii), we propose that two backgrounds may function as one under certain well-defined circumstances. Our proposal supports the decompositional approach to attitude verbs, where mood is responsible for the quantificational force traditionally attributed to the verb.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)343-393
Number of pages51
JournalNatural Language Semantics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language


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