It is usual to distinguish between a piece of language and its context. This distinction is, I think, bogus. Whether "flies" in "Fruit flies like butter" is a verb or a noun is determined by context (a "typical" context is still a context, just as a flat delivery is an intonation). Consider some ways one might try to make the distinction:
- "Context is everything over and beyond the sentence." But this is useless unless we have an account of what "the sentence" as distinguished from the "context" contains.
- "Context is everything over and beyond what is written or pronounced." But this is false—since a part of the context may be what was written or pronounced earlier. And if one amends to say "what is written or pronounced in the sentence", the the problem in (1) comes back. Besides, this definition would make everything in sign language count as context. There is an infinite variety of ways that linguistic expressions could be realized, and there is no hope of listing them all to make a definition like this work out.
- "Everything that is linguistically relevant but which the speaker might not know about while responsibly uttering the sentence is context." But a speaker might not know what words she is using. For instance, the discovery that a linguistic sequence can be broken up into words is a genuine empirical discovery, and a speaker might not have it. It is normal, further, for the speaker of a language to fail to know exactly the sounds she is making. (In Russian and Polish, final voiced stops get devoiced; thus, a final written "d" is pronounced "t"; however, native speakers often do not know this, and falsely believe they are pronouncing a "d"!) Moreover, there will be aspects of what is traditionally called "context" which a speaker had better know about, because it determines the parsing of the sentence (e.g., "Fruit flies like butter").
- "The sentence is what is intentionally produced by the speaker; everything else is context." This is dubious, because one can utter a written sentence simply by cutting out an apposite sentence from a newspaper story and mailing it to someone, we may suppose with a signature appended. In that case, one has asserted whatever was in that sentence, but one has not intentionally produced that sentence, unless "produced" includes exhibiting, taking up, making relevant, etc. But if "produced" is understood in such a wide way, then what are traditionally thought of as parts of the context may well be "produced", in that the time at which one speaks, the way one's face looks, etc. can often indicate which parts of the context are relevant.
- "The sentence is what is chosen by the speaker's intention; everything else is context." But just a speaker can choose the precise wording, she can choose the precise context, either by producing it or by waiting for it. Of course, sometimes a speaker does not choose the context and may be even unaware of it. But likewise, sometimes a speaker does not choose the words and be even unaware of them (e.g., consider cases of misspeakings or cases where habit rather than choice determines the wording).
- "Context is that which is not governed by conventional rules of grammar." This is either trivially true, if we take "grammar" to include only the rules that govern things other than context, or else is simply false—for there are rules that involve the interaction of wording and context.