Sunday, May 27, 2007

No little red jackets

This is going to be a short post with more than one idea, which is to say a little scattered. It is also a little rough around the edges, although fun for me. One of my favorite webcomics had a recent strip whose last panel really stuck out. The text reads, "Built just like regular sentences, these sentences can in an instant transform forever the life of their speaker!" with a caption at the bottom saying "National Sentence Council". The context is one of the characters thinking about proposing to another character, but that is neither here nor there. The important point is the claim that one cannot tell just from the form of a sentence what it's consequences will be. There are a few qualifications here, since, arguably, one can tell the logical consequences from form and such. There is also a sense in which using any sentence will change one's life forever, e.g. you've just committed yourself to something or generated some implicature or simply just used another sentence again. This sense seems largely uninteresting and will be ignored. If one knew what "marry" meant, then one could tell that any sentences containing that form would likely be important. However, this requires semantic (meaning) knowledge, not just knowledge about the shape or syntax of the sentence. Adopting a phrase from one of my seminar teachers from the fall, the important sentences don't come wearing red jackets to indicate that they are important. The mundane sentences and the important ones are built the same way and don't seem to be determined solely by their form.

On a somewhat related note, one of the things that Nick Asher, rightfully, hammered me on at the Austin conference was that the syntax of a sentence is not sufficient condition for what the use of the sentence is. Something that looks like a declarative sentence can easily be used as a question, or even a command, and similarly for the others. Things that look like questions can combine with things that seem like they only take traditionally declarative sentences, e.g. "if we get more serious, should I tell him my name?" I didn't get a chance to ask him about it, but it reminded me of an argument Davidson made that there was no conventional determination of the force of a sentence, although convention could contribute to the meaning. (I think that was how the idea went... It is from "Moods and Performances" in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. ) Although this is somewhat different from the point in the first paragraph, they seem to go together. If Asher and Davidson are right (although I'm willing to admit they are making different but similar points) then the assertional sentences don't come wearing little read assertion jackets.

What is the point of this? There are two. The first I'm interested in here is to what degree syntax (in a broad sense) can be said to determine the meaning and pragmatic effect of a sentence in use. The examples above seem to indicate that there isn't a lot of determination. The second is my support of the use of webcomics to illustrate philosophical ideas or otherwise liven up blogs.

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