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Sentences, Utterances, Propositions

Wednesday, August 15, 20120 comments

Sentences, Utterances, Propositions
Muchamad Adam Basori, M.A TESOL
24 September 2011
Meeting 2
Read the following out loud:
Honesty and endearment are virtuous behaviour for their own reward
When you say the sentence above twice or more, the same sentence was involved in the two readings, but you made two different utterances, i.e. two unique physical events took place.
An UTTERANCE is any stretch of talk, by one person, before and after which there is silence on the part of that person.
An utterance is the USE by a particular speaker, on a particular occasion, of a piece of language, such as a sequence of sentences, or a single phrase, or even a single word.
Questions on Utterance
Now decide whether the following could represent utterances. Indicate your answer by circling Yes or No.
(1) ‘Hello’ Yes / No
(2) ‘Not much’ Yes / No
(3) ‘Utterances may consist of a single word, a single phrase or a single sentence. They may also consist of a sequence of sentences. It is not unusual to find utterances that consist of one or more grammatically incomplete sentence-fragments. In short, there is no simple relation of correspondence between utterances and sentences’ Yes / No
(4) ‘Pxgotmgt’ Yes / No
(5) ‘Schplotzenpflaaaaaaargh!’ Yes / No
Answers on Utterance

(1) Yes
(2) Yes
(3) Yes, even though it would be a bit of a mouthful to say
in one utterance (i.e. without pauses).
(4) No, this string of sounds is not from any language.
(5) No, for the same reason given for (4)

Comments on The Questions
Utterances are physical events. Events lasts only for a very short time (ephemeral). Utterances die on the wind. Linguistics deals with spoken language and we will have a lot to say about utterances in this Semantic course. But we will concentrate even more on another notion, that of sentences.
Definition of Sentence (partial)
A SENTENCE is neither a physical event nor a physical object. It is, conceived abstractly, a string of words put together by the grammatical rules of a language.
A sentence can be thought of as the IDEAL string of words behind various realizations in utterances and inscriptions.
Some examples will help to get the idea of a sentence across. Indicate your answer by circling Yes or No.
(1) Do all (authentic) performances of Opera Van Java begin by using the same sentence? Yes / No
(2) Do all (authentic) performances of Opera Van Java begin with the same utterance? Yes / No
(3) Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of a sentence? Yes / No
(4) Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of an utterance? Yes / No
(5) Can one talk of a loud sentence? Yes / No
(6) Can one talk of a slow utterance? Yes / No
Feedback and Comments
(1) Yes (2) No (3) No (4) Yes (5) No (6) Yes
Strictly, a power point presentation such as this contains no utterances (since writings don’t talk) or sentences (since sentences are abstract ideals).
In semantics we need to make a careful distinction between utterances and sentences. In particular we need some way of making it clear when we are discussing sentences and when utterances. We adopt the convention that anything written between single quotation marks represents an utterance, and anything italicized represents a sentence or (similarly abstract) part of a sentence, such as a phrase or a word.
‘Help’ represents an utterance.
1. The trees have been struck by lightning represents a sentence.
2. ‘The trees have been struck by lightning’ represents an utterance.
3. Yudhoyono represents a word conceived as part of a sentence.
(1) For each of the following label it as an utterance (U) or sentence (S), as appropriate, by circling your choice.
(a) ‘The train now arriving at platform one is the 11.15 from King’s Cross’ U / S
(b) The pelican ignores the linguist U / S
(2) Given our conventions, say what is wrong with the following:
(a) John announced Mary’s here in his squeakiest voice.................................
(b) ‘Mary thought how nice John was’........................................................
(1) (a) U (b) S
(2) (a) ‘Mary’s here’ should be in quotation marks since it represents John’s utterance, i.e. the event of his using those words on a particular occasion.
(b) A sentence, which is not a physical thing, cannot be part of an utterance, which is a physical event. ‘How nice John was’ should not be italicized. (Alternatively the whole example should be italicized and the quotation marks removed.)
We have defined a sentence as a string of words.
A given sentence always consists of the same words, and in the same order. Any change in the words, or in their order, makes a different sentence, for our purposes.
Bambang rolled up the carpet
Bambang rolled the carpet up
Sincerity may frighten the boy
Sincerity may frighten the boy
It would make sense to say that an utterance was in a particular accent (i.e. a particular way of pronouncing words). However, it would not make strict sense to say that a sentence was in a particular accent, because a sentence itself is only associated with phonetic characteristics such as accent and voice quality through a speaker’s act of uttering it. Accent and voice quality belong strictly to the utterance, not to the sentence uttered.
Definition of Sentence (partial) (contd.)
A SENTENCE is a grammatically complete string of words expressing a complete thought.
This very traditional definition is unfortunately vague, but it is hard to arrive at a better one for our purposes. It is intended to exclude any string of words that does not have a verb in it, as well as other strings. The idea is best shown by examples.
I would like a cup of coffee is a sentence.
Coffee, please is not a sentence.
In the kitchen is not a sentence.
Please put it in the kitchen is a sentence.
Comments on The Examples
Utterances of non-sentences, e.g. short phrases, or single words, are used by people in communication all the time.
People do not converse wholly in (tokens of) well-formed sentences.
However, the abstract idea of a sentence is the basis for understanding even those expressions which are not sentences. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the meanings of non-sentences can best be analysed by considering them to be abbreviations, or incomplete versions, of whole sentences.
Semantics is concerned with the meanings of non-sentences, such as phrases and incomplete sentences, just as much as with whole sentences.
However, our Semantic course is more interesting and convenient to begin our analysis with the case of whole sentences.
The meanings of whole sentences involve PROPOSITIONS; the notion of a proposition is central to Semantics.
What exactly a proposition is, is much debated by semanticists. We shall be content with a very simple definition.
Definition of Proposition
A PROPOSITION is that part of the meaning of the utterance of a declarative sentence which describes some state of affairs.
รจ The state of affairs typically involves persons or things referred to by expressions in the sentence and the situation or action they are involved in. In uttering a declarative sentence a speaker typically asserts a proposition.
Our Rule of Proposition
The notion of truth can be used to decide whether two sentences express different propositions.
Thus if there is any conceivable set of circumstances in which one sentence is true, while the other is false, we can be sure that they express different propositions.
Practice to Understanding
Consider the following pairs of sentences. In each case, say whether there are any circumstances of which one member of the pair could be true and the other false (assuming in each case that the same name, e.g. Susilo, refers to the same person).
(1) Susilo took out the garbage
Susilo took the garbage out Yes / No
(2) John gave Mary a book
Mary was given a book by John Yes / No
(3) Sarah loves Tony
Tony loves Sarah Yes / No
(4) George danced with Jane
George didn’t dance with Jane Yes / No
(5) Dr Sisca killed Dewi
Dr Sisca caused Dewi to die Yes / No
(1) No, these are always either both true or both false. We cannot imagine any situation in which one is true and the other false.
(2) No
(3) Yes, one could be true and the other false.
(4) Yes
(5) Yes, for example in the situation where Dr Findlay had caused Janet to die, but not intentionally, say by sending her to a place where, unknown to him, she was attacked. Someone else could in fact be guilty of killing her.
True propositions correspond to facts, in the ordinary sense of the word fact.
False propositions do not correspond to facts.
What is Proposition?
In our definition of ‘proposition’ we explicitly mentioned declarative sentences, but propositions are clearly involved in the meanings of other types of sentences, such as interrogatives, which are used to ask questions, and imperatives, which are used to convey orders.
Normally, when a speaker utters a simple declarative sentence, he commits himself to the truth of the corresponding proposition: i.e. he asserts the proposition.
By uttering a simple interrogative or imperative, a speaker can mention a particular proposition, without asserting its truth.
In saying, ‘John can go’ a speaker asserts the proposition that John can go.
In saying, ‘Can John go?’, he mentions the same proposition but merely questions its truth.
We say that corresponding declaratives and interrogatives (and imperatives) have the same propositional content.
Practice to Understanding
(1) In the following utterances, is any proposition asserted by the speaker?
(a) ‘Have you seen my toothbrush?’ Yes / No
(b) ‘Get out of here this minute!’ Yes / No
(c) ‘I’m afraid that I’ll have to ask you to leave’ Yes / No
(2) Would you say that the members of the following sentence pairs have the same propositional content?
(a) Go away, will you?
You will go away Yes / No
(b) Pigs might fly
I’m a Dutchman Yes / No
(c) I am a smart person
Am I a smart person? Yes / No
(1) (a) No (b) No (c) Yes
(2) (a) Yes (b) No common proposition is involved. (c) Yes
Comments & Examples
Propositions, unlike sentences, cannot be said to belong to any particular language.
Sentences in different languages can correspond to the same proposition, if the two sentences are perfect translations of each other.
English I am sleepy and Indonesia Saya ngantuk, can, to the extent to which they are perfect translations of each other, be said to correspond to the same proposition.
One may question whether perfect translation between languages is ever possible. In point of fact, many linguists disagree about this and it is likely that absolutely perfect translation of the same proposition from one language to another is impossible.
However, to simplify matters here we shall assume that in some, possibly very few, cases, perfect translation is possible.
We shall use the terms ‘proposition’, ‘sentence’, and ‘utterance’ in such a way that anything that can be said of propositions can also be said of utterances, but not necessarily vice versa, and anything that can be said of sentences can also be said of utterances, but not necessarily vice versa.
We have already seen an example of this when we said it was sensible to talk of a sentence being in a particular language, and also sensible to talk of an utterance being in a particular language, although one cannot talk of a proposition being in a particular language.
Practice to Summarizing
(1) Fill in the chart below with ‘+’ or ‘-’ as appropriate. Thus, for example, if it makes sense to think of a proposition being in a particular regional accent, put a ‘+’ in the appropriate box; if not, put a ‘-’.
(2) Can the same proposition be expressed by different sentences? Yes / No
(3) Can the same sentence be realized by different utterances (i.e. have different utterances as tokens)? Yes / No
+ - -
+ + -
+ + +
+ + -
(2) Yes
(3) Yes
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