How Do Sentences Work (this is interesting)

I’ve written many times on this blog about rich perception — how our mind creates frameworks for us to see the world which let us do certain things like take action, recognize pain, and  build friendships.

But now I am investigating (and becoming convinced by the idea that) the idea that LANGUAGE can be enriched in a similar way, and many philosophers  of language count this phenomenon as one of, helpfully enough, enrichment.

The idea is simple. There are semantic rules — these are the rules that linguists and philosophers try to come up with for how language works. For example, the word “and” in English does many things and can be used many ways, but as a semantic matter, at least according to many people, it works truth functionally, meaning that it combined the truth values of two clauses and makes the truth value of the whole sentence depend on those two truth values.

For instance if I say “Twitter is new and stupid,” then I say the same thing as “Twitter is stupid and new.”

Of course and functions in a ton of ways. These two sentences are not the same, and it seems like they should be if “and” is only working truth functionally.

I brushed my teeth and got into bed.

I got into bed and brushed my teeth.

Anyway, the semantic rules governing and are not critical. What is important is enrichment, which is when THE PROPOSITION that a sentence relates goes beyond the proposition that encoded purely by the semantics.

Here is a great example.

He took out his key and opened the door.

Semantically, this sentence says that someone took out his key and that he opened the door. It LITERALLY, says nothing about the relationship between the key-taking-out and the door-opening. The sentence would be true if I pulled out a key with one hand, tossed it aside, and then opened the door with my other.

However, when we hear that sentence, we hear the following, ENRICHED proposition (enriched part of the proposition is in italics).

He took out his key and with that very same key opened the door.

The truth conditions of this sentence are very different than those of the previous one. One condition is that I must use the same key that I took out to open the door.

I think this is fascinating because it shows that what a sentence “means” is VERY malleable.

There are a lot of fun examples that illustrate this point (these both are taken from Prof. Jody Azzouni).

1. A boy skins his knee and the mother says “You aren’t going to die.”

2. A scientist begins his lecture on the recently found cure for mortality and says “You aren’t going to die.”

The same words are uttered in (1) and (2), but in (1), we hear

You aren’t going to die from this.

In (2) we hear

You aren’t going to die ever.

Context makes a big difference to how we understand things.

Why is this interesting? Well I think for a ton of reasons, and I’ve become pretty obsessed with it lately.

But here’s one interesting application.

The ability to write well is often taught as the obedience to grammatical rules and to conventions about topic sentences and so forth. These are all important, but they get us only so far, and the reason is that reading something is a rich activity of enrichment. Subtle word choice, organization, pauses, and emphasis can drastically alter how we “see” (again, my use is not that metaphoric) things.

Take this two sentences, where a comma makes ALL the difference (saw this example the other day).

I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

The lesson here is that good, clear writers now to how get inside people’s heads and master the unseen, UNSYSTEMATIZED relationships between the situation, word choice, and connotation to generate ENRICHED propositions. And so good writing is quite literally RICH; it is conscious of the various ways in which we can say something without writing it — conveying a mood or additional action or even a relationship that wouldn’t be present. As these examples demonstrate, this isn’t something that only intellectuals can latch on to. The artful wordplay of good books exploits a COMPLETELY DEMOCRATIC and UNIVERSALLY available part of the human linguistic capability.

As I’ve said a thousand times before, I suggest Infinite Jest as an object lesson in this type of democratic wordplay.





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