Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ungrammatical sentences

I think there is something important to be learned in the philosophy of language from the fact that grammatically wrong sentences often succeed in clearly expressing propositions. (Maybe something along the lines of the claim that speaker meaning is the only meaning there is.)


Mike Almeida said...

I'm not sure there is much more to be learned from ungrammatical sentences than there is to be learned from these oddly readble sentences (this one posted by Peter Unger),

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too Cna yuo raed tihs? i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Consider two models of how we understand malformed sentences:
1. We recognize what correct sentence was intended.
2. We recognize what proposition was expressed, without a correct sentence acting as an intermediary.

In the case you give, 1 is the case.
But the more interesting case is 2. I kind of hope that thinking through cases where 2 happens may push one to the view that speaker meaning is the only meaning there is.

christopher said...

We need to know what you mean by 'ungrammatical sentences'. You could mean the prescriptive, or folk understanding of grammar, where a 'good' or 'well formed' sentence is just a sentence that is grammatical in your spoken dialect in a given langauge. This should not be confused, however, with descriptive-grammar, which is the serious business of linguists, not 'grammarians'. If I uttered the sentence 'he be going no place',that would be an 'ill-formed' sentence according to what? ... It seems that either it is some common 'Style' of use, where one sentence-type'sounds better than' another sentence-type (as we all learned in highschool English) or we are talking about the descriptive-rules for a grammar in a given dialect-of-a-language (which are discovered, not stipulated, or suggested, or normative).

For instance, Ebonics is a subset of English, where Ebonics has a conistent use of grammar-rules, just like other dialects of English. The crucial difference, then, is that the class of grammatical-Ebonic's sentences are not grammatical sentences in the dialect, of say, RP-English. This, however, is just to say that - as a matter of descriptive fact - linguistic grammer-rules are contingent upon a wide 'speaker-dialect', where a grammatical sentence p in RP-English, is not a grammatical sentence in Ebonics-English.

The lesson learned from cognitive and social linguisics: In the RP-English dialect, the sentence 'He is going home' expresses a certain proposition P, where in the EB-English dialect, the sentence 'He be going home', expresses the *same* propostion P, namely that (there exist an x and a y, such that x is a person, and y satisfies the predicate 'home of x', such that Goes(x,y)). Or, something of that sort...

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am thinking of sentences that are ungrammatical in the dialect being spoken, and whose production lacks sufficient regularity to form an idiolect. Think, for instance, of a non-native speaker who has no idea what the past tense of "swim" is, who knows that it is not "swoom", but who nonetheless says "swoom" because she doesn't know what else to say and correctly hopes the listener will understand. Or take a simple English sentence and shuffle the word order around at random. Or think of things that when grading papers we castigate as "category mistakes" even though we know exactly what the student means. For instance: "Kant's argument is true" (we may well know that the claim made is that Kant's argument is sound).