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What is the word that means a 'what if' phrase?

In a college course, I vaguely remember, the instructor wrote a word on the board that loosely meant or perhaps described any sentence that was a what-if statement. If I remember correctly it was essentially a word for classes of phrases, like say an appositive phrase. It was a more technical word, not something common like hypothetical, and for the life of me I can't recall it. Any help would be much appreciated.

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    "Hypothetical?" – Benjamin Harman Jan 13 '16 at 6:23
  • I think they are called suppositions, making assumptions or guesses without credible proof at hand. – BiscuitBoy Jan 13 '16 at 6:32
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The 'counterfactual' may be what you have in mind. It is applied not only to questions--'counterfactual questions' often begin with "what if ..."--but also assertions, the 'counterfactual conditional' statement, and a type of reasoning, 'counterfactual reasoning'.

A general definition of the adjective is presented along with an example of the use of 'counterfactual question' at The Free Dictionary:

coun·ter·fac·tu·al (koun′tər-făk′cho͞o-əl) adj.
Running contrary to the facts: "Cold war historiography vividly illustrates how the selection of the counterfactual question to be asked generally anticipates the desired answer" (Timothy Garton Ash).

[counterfactual. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved January 13 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/counterfactual .]

For examples and discussion of 'counterfactual reasoning' and 'counterfactual conditional', see "Causal Explanations in Counterfactual Reasoning", M. Dehghani, R. Iliev, and S. Kaufmann, in Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2009.

  • That's the one! It was rattling around somewhere in my brain and I just couldn't grasp it. Thanks! – Arammil Jan 13 '16 at 12:17
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spec•u•la•tion (ˌspɛk yəˈleɪ ʃən)

n.
  1. the contemplation or consideration of some subject.
  2. a single instance or process of consideration.
  3. a conclusion or opinion reached by such contemplation.
  4. conjectural consideration of a matter; conjecture or surmise.
  5. engagement in commercial transactions that involve risk with the hope of profiting as a result of market fluctuations.

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

spec·u·late (spĕk′yə-lāt′)
v. spec·u·lat·ed, spec·u·lat·ing, spec·u·lates

v.intr.
  1. To engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.
  2. To engage in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.
v.tr.

To assume to be true without conclusive evidence: speculated that high cholesterol was a contributing factor to the patient's health problems.

[Latin speculārī, speculāt-, to observe, from specula, watchtower, from specere, to look at; see spek- in Indo-European roots.]

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Adjective: Speculative.


con·jec·ture (kən-jĕk′chər)

n.
  1. Opinion or judgment based on inconclusive or incomplete evidence; guesswork.
  2. An opinion or conclusion based on guesswork: The commentators made various conjectures about the outcome of the next election.

v. con·jec·tured, con·jec·tur·ing, con·jec·tures

v.tr.

To judge or conclude by conjecture; guess: "From the comparative silence below ... I conjectured that Mr Rochester was now at liberty" (Charlotte Brontë).

v.intr.

To make a conjecture.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin coniectūra, from coniectus, past participle of conicere, to infer : com-, com- + iacere, to throw; see yē- in Indo-European roots.]

  • con·jec′tur·a·ble adj.
  • con·jec′tur·al adj.
  • con·jec′tur·al·ly adv.
  • con·jec′tur·er n.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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The subjunctive mood refers to "various states of unreality" (wikipedia).

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