The Logical Form of Omission Sentences

The Logical Form of Omission Sentences

There is an undeniable appeal to Davidson’s treatment of action sentences, in which adverbs appear as predicates of events quantified over.[1] Thus “John buttered some toast quickly in the kitchen” becomes “There was an event esuch that e was a buttering and e was by John and e was quick and e was in the kitchen”. Events have properties and action sentences ascribe these properties to them by means of adverbs. The underlying logical form is the familiar pattern of existential quantification plus conjunction. But what about omission sentences such as “John omitted to butter some toast quickly in the kitchen”? Suppose you instruct John to do just that and he agrees, but then he neglects to perform the action in question: the quoted sentence then expresses a truth. There are omissions as well as actions. Can we render that sentence in Davidson’s style? This would read: “There was an event e such that e was an omission of buttering and e was by John and e was quick and e was in the kitchen”. But none of that is true: there was no such event and it certainly wasn’t quick and in the kitchen. Nor can we say, “There was an omission o such that o was a buttering etc.”: even if we are willing to quantify over omissions, it sounds wrong to say that the omission in question was quick and in the kitchen. How can omitted actions have properties? They didn’t occur, so how can they be one way rather than another? Neither would it be correct to take the omission sentence as simply the negation of the corresponding action sentence, as in “It is not the case that John buttered some toast quickly in the kitchen”. That sentence does not entail that there was any omission on John’s part, but simply that he didn’t perform a certain action—it is clearly not true that whenever we don’t do something we omit to do that thing. One’s life is not full of omissions corresponding to all the actions we don’t perform. The problem, evidently, is that omissions are not events with properties, which is what Davidson’s analysis calls for. Accordingly, omission sentences don’t have the logical form of action sentences, so the adverbs appearing in them are not functioning as predicates of events. But further, action sentences and omission sentences have the same syntax, both containing adverbs, in which case it is hard to see how action sentences can have Davidson’s logical form either. Any action sentence can be converted into an omission sentence simply by inserting “omitted to” before the action verb, so the two must clearly share their semantics. Therefore action sentences don’t have the logical form of quantification plus conjunction. What logical form they do have is another question.


[1] See “The Logical Form of Action Sentences”.

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3 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Are there any actions that take place entirely in our head? Does a flight of philosophical imagination count as an action? Does imagining a unicorn count as an action? If so, how would Davidson’s analysis treat sentences referring to such actions? How could an analysis in terms of events which are objective facts deal with actions whose nature is fixed by subjective facts?

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