Direct causation: a new approach to an old question

Rebekah Baglini, Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Causative constructions come in lexical and periphrastic variants, exemplified in English by Sam killed Lee and Sam caused Lee to die. While use of the former, the lexical causative, entails the truth of the latter, an entailment in the other direction does not hold. The source of this asymmetry is commonly ascribed to the lexical causative having an additional prerequisite of textquotedblleftdirect causation", such that the causative relation holds between a contiguous cause and effect (Fodor 1970, Katz 1970). However, this explanation encounters both empirical and theoretical problems (Nelleman amp; van der Koot 2012). To explain the source of the directness inferences (as well as other longstanding puzzles), we propose a formal analysis based on the framework of Structural Equation Models (SEMs) (Pearl 2000) which provides the necessary background for licensing causal inferences. Specifically, we provide a formalization of a ’sufficient set of conditions’ within a model and demonstrate its role in the selectional parameters of causative descriptions. We argue that textquotedblleftcausal sufficiencytextquotedblright is not a property of singular conditions, but rather sets of conditions, which are individually necessary but only sufficient when taken together (a view originally motivated in the philosophical literature by Mackie 1965). We further introduce the notion of a textquotedblleftcompletion eventtextquotedblright of a sufficient set, which is critical to explain the particular inferential profile of lexical causatives.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4
Pages (from-to)19-28
Number of pages10
JournalUniversity of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020


  • General Linguistics


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