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Beyond Grammar: Grammar and Meaning

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.


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.


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

Come here!


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

You can come early.



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

[That is a] wonderful [suggestion].


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.