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Allow me to explain my question. So 'hypothetical', according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as follows:

: involving or based on a suggested idea or theory : involving or based on a hypothesis : not real : imagined as an example http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypothetical

Normally, it is seen in contexts such as:

He asked a hypothetical question.

"She described a hypothetical case to prove her point." (example sentence from Merriam-webster)

Could the word hypothetical be used in this context as well:

“They probably wouldn’t. But, NASA never discovered aliens; this situation is unprecedented,” Mr. Fern continues.

We look at Mr. Fern quizzically. There are aliens right outside, trapped inside leak-proof containment cells.

“That’s why you’re asking us,” Mac says. “Your team will say no, won’t they, in respect with NASA’s hypothetical wishes.”

In this case, the team does not know what NASA's wishes are; they are guessing what the wishes would be, and acting on those guesses. Could those wishes be described as hypothetical or is that improper usage of the word? An explanation would be greatly appreciated.

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  • Hypothetical probably works. But presumed (or its synonyms) seems better in my opinion (google.com/#q=define%20presumed). – GoldenGremlin Jun 21 '16 at 13:34
  • Why do you think there might be something "ungrammatical" about referring to hypothetical wishes? – FumbleFingers Jun 21 '16 at 13:35
  • @FumbleFingers I don't see something wrong with it by itself, but in context it just seems a bit out of place. – RE Lavender Jun 21 '16 at 13:40
  • But I don't understand why you think "seems a bit out of place". We can all have opinions on alternatives we might prefer in your cited context (assumed, presumed, for example, or perhaps hypothesized), but they're really nothing more than opinions. – FumbleFingers Jun 21 '16 at 14:32
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You would only use "hypothetical" in this context if you were referring back to something that had already been mentioned, ie that had already been established as being hypothetical.

Since, in your text sample at least, NASA's wishes have not been mentioned, you're referring back to something that doesn't exist, and this will cause confusion.

As @silenus suggests in the comment above, "presumed" is a better choice as it can be used with no prior reference to the wishes: the speaker is saying that they "presume NASA has these wishes".

EDIT - I'm going expand on my answer, since it may not have been clear.

Original text:

“They probably wouldn’t. But, NASA never discovered aliens; this situation is unprecedented,” Mr. Fern continues. We look at Mr. Fern quizzically. There are aliens right outside, trapped inside leak-proof containment cells. “That’s why you’re asking us,” Mac says. “Your team will say no, won’t they, in respect with NASA’s hypothetical wishes.”

Here, Mac is describing NASA's wishes as hypothetical. But what is he talking about? No-one has mentioned NASA's wishes. Describing the wishes as hypothetical here makes the reader think "Err, what wishes is he referring to?". They may then re-read the preceding text, asuming they've missed something. But they haven't.

On the other hand, if there was some mention of what NASA might want, previously, then the reader knows what's being referred to. eg, if I add a sentence at the start.

“NASA wouldn't want us to sign the aliens up with a StackExchange account“, Mac said. “They probably wouldn’t. But, NASA never discovered aliens; this situation is unprecedented,” Mr. Fern continues. We look at Mr. Fern quizzically. There are aliens right outside, trapped inside leak-proof containment cells. “That’s why you’re asking us,” Mac says. “Your team will say no, won’t they, in respect with NASA’s hypothetical wishes.”

Now we know which wishes are being described as hypothetical.

Re-reading the original text, i suspect that there might have been some mention of NASA's wishes previously, which wasn't included in the sample - the first sentence seems to follow on from something along those lines. OP, is that the case?

  • If the first sentence in a conversation is I'm going to present a hypothetical situation, to what is the speaker "referring back" to? – deadrat Jun 21 '16 at 17:11
  • Well, that's a different context. In this case, you're explaining up front that it's hypothetical. In the OP's question that wasn't the case: there had been no mention of the "wishes" which are later described as being "hypothetical". – Max Williams Jun 22 '16 at 7:31
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I suspect hypothetical is being used in an ironical sense here, or at least a duplicitous one. Let's say your job depends on having a security clearance, and that claiming to know of a cage full of little green men will probably cause you to lose said clearance, and that your co-workers are technically supposed to report this sort of thing. It's going to be kind of awkward to have a normal, constructive conversation about those critters out back under these circumstances. So the entire conversation is conducted under an umbrella of hypothetical-ness. This happens often enough when reality conflicts with policy.

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