Degrees of Grammaticalness

Degrees of Grammaticalness

In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) Chomsky discusses what he calls “degrees of grammaticalness”. He concludes this discussion with these words: “More generally, it is clear that the intuitive notion of grammatical well-formedness is by no means a simple one and that an adequate explanation of it will involve theoretical constructs of a highly abstract nature, just as it is clear that various diverse factors determine how and whether a sentence can be interpreted” (151). Here we encounter such specimen sentences as “sincerity may virtue the boy”, “sincerity may elapse the boy”, “sincerity may admire the boy”, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, “the book who you read was a best seller”, “a very walking person appeared”, “who you met is John”, “John found sad”, and many others. Chomsky makes some suggestions about what kind of rule is being violated in such cases, observing that some rule violations produce a greater degree of grammatical deviance than others. Surely, he is right to make these distinctions: there is not just a simple dichotomy of grammatical and ungrammatical sentences but a whole range of graded cases. I will be concerned with the philosophical implications of these linguistic observations.

The first implication is immediate: meaningfulness is also a matter of degree. We often speak as if there is a simple dichotomy of the meaningful and the meaningless, but this is an oversimplification; there are many intermediate cases. A random string of words is obviously more meaningless than the examples cited above. We can often find an interpretation for a sentence that violates syntactic rules, or deviant sentences can be likenon-deviant sentences (Chomsky gives “revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently” and “sincerity may frighten the boy”). Recognizing this point would allow the moderate logical positivist to say that metaphysics is less meaningful than science but still somewhat meaningful, and that the more verifiable a sentence is the more meaningful it is. And we do normally speak of sentences as being “pretty meaningless” or “perfectly meaningful” or “almost devoid of meaning”. Less obviously, what happens to the classical notion of a proposition? We will find ourselves saying that the proposition expressed can be more or less well-formed—there will be “degrees of propositional-ness”. There will be semi-propositions or quasi-propositions or borderline propositions or degenerate propositions. This is not what we have been taught to expect (consider Frege and the early Wittgenstein). If propositions are connected to meanings, and meanings can be more or less coherent, then propositions can be more or less coherent. Propositional-ness will be like grammatical-ness. It is true that there cannot be super-propositional propositions, as there cannot be super-grammatical grammatical sentences: once a sentence is certified as grammatical (“the cat sat on the mat”) there is no such thing as a sentence being more grammatical than it, just as a proposition in good standing cannot be outdone in point of propositionality by some superior form of proposition. There are no languages that contain sentences that outshine the sentences of English in point of grammaticalness, or propositions that make our ordinary propositions look like also-rans qua proposition (you don’t get more propositional than the proposition that snow is white or that Plato taught Aristotle). But deviance can come in degrees, so that some propositions are less than perfectly propositional. It is not a question of falsity: to be sure, deviant sentences will often express false propositions, but they will also suffer from an absence of full proposition-hood without entirely being devoid of propositional status. This is true of most of the sentences I cited from Chomsky: they express propositions of some sort (degree), and we can specify these propositions by prefixing the sentence with “the proposition that”, but the propositions in question are “deviant”—substandard, badly formed, not up to snuff. Frege’s realm of “Thoughts” is populated by some pretty shabby specimens, just like the possible sentences of the English language. Sentences, meanings, and propositions all come in degrees of coherence and well-formedness.

What becomes of logic in the sphere of the deviant proposition? Perhaps surprisingly, nothing much changes so far as I can see: the same rules of inference and logical laws hold. I won’t go through all of these, but we can see, for example, that if sincerity elapses the boy, then something elapses the boy, and that a conjunction of two deviant propositions implies its deviant conjuncts; also, that no colorless green ideas can sleep furiously and not sleep furiously simultaneously. Logic works as well for these cases as for the grammatical cases; the mere presence of nouns and verbs in the right order seems to be enough to give logic a foothold. So, logic does not require a domain of well-formed (“proper”) propositions, contrary to expectation. Nonsense can be logical. In this respect logic is like poetry (as in nonsense poetry). There is a logic of the less than fully meaningful. Correct syntax isn’t a precondition of logical inference.

Is it the same with facts? I don’t think so: there are no deviant facts. There are no ungrammatical facts corresponding to ungrammatical sentences; none of Chomsky’s deviant sentences represent deviant facts (none of them are true). Consequently, there are no deviant truths—truth admits of no lapse from syntactic well-formedness. Degrees of grammaticalness don’t line up with degrees of truthiness. Put differently, there are no deviant states of affairs analogous to deviant grammar; hence no deviant objects and properties. Reality doesn’t admit of degrees of coherence; only representations of it do. On the side of language things can be variously well-formed, but not so the side of the real world. Logic can tolerate nonsense (partial nonsense anyway), but reality can’t tolerate it. Propositions are inherently “squishier” than facts. There are no nonsense facts but plenty of nonsense sentences and propositions.

Could a language have only syntactically deviant sentences? Could it never have risen to the level of correct grammar? I don’t think so, because deviance is parasitic on correctness. It is the existence of good grammar that permits there to be bad grammar. Generally, less than exemplary sentences are degradations of perfectly correct sentences—they violate rules that govern other existing sentences. Speakers could not have a competence with ungrammatical sentences unless they already had a competence with grammatical ones—no nonsense without sense.[1] So, it could not be that natural languages arose by gradual evolution from pre-grammatical forms of language, as if people first began to speak in more or less meaningless sentences and slowly learned to construct meaningful ones. It isn’t like bad science preceding good science, or bad art good art, or bad morality good morality. When humans began to speak, they spoke in syntactically correct strings not in varieties of syntactic nonsense (“Not us this she cave”). Linguistic concatenation allows for meaningless strings, but syntactic rules were in place from the start (“This cave looks nice”). We did not learn to be grammatical by trial and error, or by the intervention of a grammatical genius putting us on the right track after centuries of syntactic chaos. Still, language has the potential to form more or less meaningless strings of words as well as meaningful strings. Thus, grammaticalness comes in degrees, as do meaningfulness and propositional-ness; or better, their lack does. These are not all-or-nothing properties.[2]

[1] Thus, we have a principle of charity with regard to grammaticalness: speakers can never be guilty of total grammatical incompetence.

[2] The same might be said of assertion and other types of speech act: there is not a simple dichotomy of assertion and non-assertion, but a graded range of assertoric force, from full confidence to tentative adherence (similarly for promising etc.).

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