What is a sentence from a syntactic perspective?

Ken writes:

Spurred on by this, I’ve done some more research. I think I’ve found a definition of the sort they might have in mind in the appendix to John Lyons’ Chomsky (Harvester Press, 1977). It is a definition of ‘sentence’ for the purposes of formal syntax and it doesn’t depend on any hidden semantic terms. A sentence is a finite sequence, or string, of elements drawn from a finite vocabulary (p. 157), where a vocabulary is a non-empty set of word types. The same finite vocabulary underlies a vast and diverse class of possible strings formed from that vocabulary. Subsets of this class are the possible languages based on this vocabulary. The grammatically well-formed sentences of a language are all and only those sentences in that language (so an ungrammatical sentence isn’t a sentence of that language at all). The task of the formal syntactician is to write down the formal grammatical rules that generate the sentences of one of these languages. And assuming that natural languages (from particular idiolects or national languages) are formal languages, to set down what grammatical rules generate that natural language. Additionally, grammarians should seek out and locate those grammatical features which are universal (common to all human languages)

The existence of this style of definition of a sentence doesn’t affect the philosophical point I would make about the respective statuses of syntax and semantics (namely that semantics has ultimate priority) because the definition presupposes a lot of interpretative stage-setting before it is applicable.

Consider a formal analogy. We could call it ‘formal architecture’. We could offer a definition of a building formally analogous to the definition of sentence used in formal syntax. A ‘building’, on this view, would be a finite construction out of elements from a finite set of building materials (slabs, blocks, etc, … and bricks). Architectural styles (modernist, art-deco, Gothic, Classical, and so on) correspond in formal architecture to languages. They are classes of possible buildings. The formal architect’s goal would be to codify the rules that generate exactly the buildings of particular architectural styles and possibly identify universal structural features of any architectural style.

Now assuming the formal parallel holds, it is clear that the definitions of ‘sentence’ and ‘building’ in this formal sense fall a long way short of saying what a sentence or a building is. Because the formal details are parallel, the only things that distinguish sentences and buildings are not included in the definition. For all the definitions say, sentences are buildings, which means that neither sentences nor buildings (so-defined) are sentences or buildings as we know them but are rather more abstract things.

If we want to know the nature of what commonsense calls sentences, we need to appeal to something besides their formal structure. And I suggest this is where semantic and pragmatic considerations are relevant. A sentence is something that can be true or false, whereas a building cannot. A building can keep the rain off your head, but a sentence cannot. And so on. Attending to these differences is part of identifying the subject matter of linguistics. Formal syntax as opposed to formal architecture cannot even get started without appeal to semantic considerations.


3 thoughts on “What is a sentence from a syntactic perspective?

  1. What? Come on! Syntax, not being a person, cannot have a perspective on what a sentence is. In fact, even if we go so grotesquely far as to imagine an anthropomorphised creature called syntax, it’s desperately hard to imagine him caring what a sentence is. If anything he’s thinking about watching James Bond movies, for feck’s sake. If coma, to liminal. Done.

  2. Chris

    I don’t share Jeremy’s sense that syntax is being illegitimately personified here, but I do wonder: what’s the semantic account of sentencehood to be?

    At the end of the post you suggest: “A sentence is something that can be true or false, whereas a building cannot.” But, of course, that won’t do, since questions, commands, lamentations, and so on, can’t be true or false.

    What you meant was something like “A sentence is something that can be used to make a move in a language game.” But what’s that? Why should lamenting or instructing be moves in the language game, whereas using a random string of words to draw merely to draw attention to oneself not count as a move in a language game. What is the criterion by which uttering a sentence of lament counts as a move in a language game, but dancing a dance of lament doesn’t not.

    I don’t know whether this is a deep question or not, but I can’t see a satisfactory answer to it myself.

  3. kenanddot

    Hmm. Maybe you could try a two part strategy: The core of language is asserting (trying to say true things). Declarative sentences are those that can be used to make an assertion. Other kinds of sentences are modifications of declarative ones.

    I like the ‘move in a language game’ option best. On the difference between uttering a sentence in lament and dancing a dance in lament, I would say that when the two actions are considered purely in terms of their intrinsic physical properties, there isn’t any principled reason why a dance couldn’t be a sentence. The existence of sign language and written language as well as speech proves that language in not confined to one particular modality. Presumably dances are merely dances because they’re not sufficiently complicated. Presumably a danced lament is merely caused by sadness, whereas a spoken lament (may be a response to sadness but) has wider normative significance as well. I’m happy to accept this is just a difference of degree. I can imagine a kind of dance sign language in which a dance lament is a speech act, but in that case, we wouldn’t call it a dance.

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