Pragmatic Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

In a famous 1966 paper, Keith S. Donnellan claimed to have identified a linguistic phenomenon unexplained by the traditional accounts of Russell, and, more contemporarily, Strawson.

Definite descriptions – phrases like the king of France, or John’s brother – were held, classically, to single out the one and only object, if it exists, which meets the criteria of the description. The truth-value of a sentence containing a definite description was assessed via the properties of this description’s unique referent. (Sentences for which no unique referent exists – like The present king of France is bald – were taken by Russell to be false and by Strawson to have no truth value.)

In a hypothetical situation suggested by Donnellan [1] and modified by Kripke, two patrons at a bar discuss a man in the corner with a champagne glass. “The man over there drinking champagne is happy tonight,” [2] one says. Though the man they point to is indeed happy, he happens to be drinking sparkling water, while another man “over there”, who is drinking champagne, and whom neither patron sees, “has been driven to drink precisely by his misery” [2]. Traditional analysis would take the sentence to be false in virtue of the properties of the sentence’s unique referent, whom neither party intended to talk about and neither party even knew about. This analysis falls short.

Donnellan’s phenomena weren’t picked up by Russell’s treatment for good reason – his analysis resides at the level of pragmatics. Continue reading

Combinatorial Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

“All doors will not open.” — operator, Amtrak Northeast Regional train, Charlottesville

In language, scope ambiguities are one of the trickiest parts of semantic theory. Semantic meaning is famously said to be determined compositionally: the meaning of a larger sentence is determined by the meanings of its smaller parts, as well as by the way these smaller parts are assembled into a whole. Even so, there can be interactions between these parts, in the sense that certain words can exert control over other words. When one word influences how another is interpreted, it is said to hold that word in its scope.

For example:

Every king admires himself. [2]

In this situation, the reflexive pronoun himself is given meaning by the separate noun king, which holds himself in its scope.

Let’s consider another example:

Puck didn’t solve one problem. [2]

What does this mean? It actually depends on how scope is assigned. It’s ambiguous. Continue reading

Wild Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

“Isn’t it true that example-sentences that people that you know produce are more likely to be accepted?” – De Roeck et al., 1982 [1]

“The man the dog the cat scratched bit died.” – Dan Scherlis, a former linguistics classmate of my mother

An Investigation

Chomsky first articulated the distinction between grammaticality and what he called performance. Making a grammatical sentence is one thing. Transmitting it successfully is another, and many potential obstacles – from distracting noise to the capacity of the human mind – can get in our way.

In particular, certain sentences are grammatical, but effectively incomprehensible. These sentences are typically complex, and they might contain intricately nested clauses and phrases. The capacity of our minds is limited. Language’s capacity for recursion is not. Who could be surprised that space eventually runs out? (The two sentences above contain double center embeddings, which are notoriously difficult to parse.)

Some sentences, though, feature an inscrutability difficult to explain on account of their complexity alone. Continue reading