Beyond Grammar: Grammar and Meaning

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Grammatical correctness and meaning are two separate functions, and they don’t always coexist.

Noam Chomsky devised a sentence with perfect grammar and no meaning: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

It is also possible to devise a sentence which a listener or reader can understand though it is grammatically incorrect.

Another reason why he dislikes lots of motorcycles in one area are large motorcycle rallies where a lot of people get their bikes there on pickup trucks, and just rides them around the town for show.

Can you construct a sentence which is grammatically correct, but meaningless? A sentence which has meaning, but is grammatically incorrect?

The second task is usually the greater challenge.

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Sometimes the reader or listener is asked to fill in meaning in order to make a sentence grammatical. Conversations go on all the time where one person or the other has to make assumptions in order to communicate.

If your companion says Coffee? she means [Do you want] coffee? It is up to you to fill in the missing pieces.

As if can be a full answer, though not a full sentence.

This guy says I’ll fall in love with him.

As if.

Means

[This guy was acting] as if [I might fall in love with him].

Come here!

Means

[I am asking you to] or [You must] come here.

You can come early.

Wonderful!

means

You can come early [if you want to come early].

[That is a] wonderful [suggestion].

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The takeaway is that communication requires more than merely grammar, but without a mutual agreement about grammar, clear communication is not possible. This mutual agreement is second nature and we hardly notice it.

 

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