[lit-ideas] Re: Grice's Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

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  • Date: Tue, 29 Apr 2014 07:54:51 -0400 (EDT)

In a message dated 4/28/2014 4:10:04 P.M.  Eastern Daylight Time, 
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
It might be  interesting for JLS (or anyone) to point to any philosophical 
doctrine of "sense  and nonsense" that addresses my point that no such 
doctrine (afaik) offers  anything like an adequate account of the "sense" of 
poetry (as opposed to an  account that merely dismisses poetry as nonsense or 
hides behind an  unenlightening claim such as the claim that its sense is 
metaphorical etc).  

Well, surely I would NOT (or even NEVER) consider the claim that the  
'sense' of poetry (provided you find me uttering generalities) is  
unenlightening. Enlighenment is in the 'mind' of the one being enlightnened, I  
Sorry if I read the post in ways that motivated me: I thought the link with 
 'truth' and a 'truth-conditional' account to utterances was _neat_. :(
I think it was Mary Louise Pratt, of UC/Berkeley, who offered a general  
theoretical framework for the interpretation of literature (and stuff --  
including poetry) along Griciean lines. G. N. Leech, in Lancaster (but educated 
UCL, London) was doing more or less the same thing, but the credit usually 
goes  to Pratt.
Then there's Heidegger. Didn't he write on "Poetry and Truth"? That would  
neatly touch on the important topic Popper was mentioning, or one of them  
I would also reconsider Reeve's intention. Surely his inspiration was  
Chomsky, and we must perhaps go back to the original context where Chomsky said 
what he did about the utterance that provoked Reeve's quatrain. 
D. Ritchie was exploring 'senses' of 'green' ('green' ideas as in 'green  
politics'?). Lakoff and Johnson, who incidentally, quote both Grice and 
Davidson  -- as proponents of a literalist approach to the world -- argue in 
"Metaphors we  live by" that GREEN IS IMMATURE (or something like that) is a 
folk-psychological  slogan and that it would be hard to find purely literal 
uses of 'green'. One  problem with this is Occam, and his razor, which Grice 
reads as "Do not multiply  SENSES beyond necessity".
There are not various 'senses' of "green". "Green" is not polysemous, but  
monosemous. It is not 'ambiguous', but 'uniguous'. Only on the basis of 
'green'  having a literal sense -- which would be the topic of the scientist 
with the aid  of the philosopher of perception -- to identify and isolate, do 
'figurative'  extensions (or 'uses') of the etymological one and only sense 
make, er,  sense.
I would not consider Chomsky a philosopher, though. He did teach  
"Linguistics and Philosophy", but never just "Philosophy". I mention this  
McEvoy is generalising about what philosophers have to say about sense  and 
nonsense when Chomsky is notably NOT a philosopher. So what he has to say  
about sense and nonsense applies to linguistics, rather. ---- NOW Grice is a  
different animal (a sort of bird in Scotland, figuratively, and a pig in the 
old  Anglo-Norman language). 
"Colourless green ideas sleep furiously" 
then, and for the record, is a "sentence" (rather than an utterance)  
artificially composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures as an  
example of a sentence that is grammatically correct, but semantically  
By 1958, J. L. Austin and H. P. Grice were reading "Syntactic Structures"  
at their Saturday morning meetings -- at the 'sentence' level, i.e. 
analysing  each and every sentence produced by Chomsky. This within the context 
their  "Play Group" (They met at St. John's).
The sentence was, since R. Paul was mentioning dissertations and  life's 
achievements, originally used in Chomsky's 1955 thesis "Logical  Structures of 
Linguistic Theory" and also 1956 paper "Three Models for the  Description 
of Language".
J. L. Austin and H. P. Grice would not know about that. Chomsky's PhD  
dissertation was only LATER to be published (officially).
Although the sentence is grammatically correct, no obvious understandable  
meaning can be derived from it, and thus it demonstrates the distinction 
between  syntax and semantics. 
As an example of a category mistake, it was used to show inadequacy of the  
then-popular probabilistic models of grammar, and the need for more 
"structured"  models.
Chomsky writes:
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.
In fact he wants to compare things:
i. Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
ii. Furiously sleep ideas green colourless. 
Chomsky writes:

"It is fair to assume that neither sentence (i) nor (ii) (nor indeed  any 
part of these sentences) 
has ever occurred in an English discourse."
_so far_, Austin reprimands.
Chomsky goes on:
"Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will  
be ruled out on identical grounds as equally "remote" from English."
Or Chomsky's English, Grice would reprimand ("People tend to assume there  
is such a thing as English, but I'm always reminded of Cole Porter, what is 
this  thing called love."). 
Chomsky goes on:
"Yet (i), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (ii) is not  
Grice would say, "and thus, not a sentence". "Sentence," like 'tree', is a  
'value-oriented' concept. Only good xs count as x. (Grice gives another 
example  of this: 'reasoning'. Only valid reasoning counts as reasoning). 
While the "meaninglessness" of the sentence is often considered fundamental 
 to Chomsky's point, Chomsky was only relying on the sentences' having 
never been  spoken before -- or 'uttered' before, as Grice would prefer. For 
surely, by  uttering a piece of nonsense, an utterer can MEAN. And it's 
UTTERER's meaning  that the philosopher is mainly interested in ("Not Witters, 
alas", he  adds).
Thus, even if one were to prescribe a likely and reasonable meaning to the  
sentence -- as Reeve allegedly does -- the grammaticality of the sentence  
is concrete despite being the first time a person had ever uttered the  
statement, or any part thereof in such a combination. 
What Reeve should perhaps do is compose a quatrain for (ii). 
Furiously sleep ideas green colourless. 
This was used then by Chomsky as a counter-example to the idea that the  
human speech engine was based upon statistical models, such as a Markov chain, 
 or simple statistics of words following others.
The sentence can be partially interpreted through polysemy --which Grice  
interprets implicaturally.
Indeed, both "green" and "colourless" have figurative meanings (or 'uses')  
which allow "colourless" to be interpreted as "nondescript" and "green" as  
The sentence can therefore be construed as 
Nondescript immature ideas have violent nightmares.
-- a phrase with less oblique semantics, allegedly (Although vide Grice,  
"You're the cream in my coffee" as a metaphor that RELIES on its category  
mistake -- vis–à–vis ideas rather than those who hold them, as having  
In particular, the phrase can have legitimate meaning too, if "green" is  
understood to mean "newly formed" and "to sleep" can be used to figuratively  
express some mental or verbal dormancy. 
"Furiously" remains problematic when applied to the verb "sleep", since  
"furiously" denotes "angrily", "violently", and "intensely energetically",  
meanings which are generally incompatible with sleep, dormancy, and 
unconscious  agents typically construed as conscious ones, e.g. animals or 
which  truly "sleep". 
But surely Witters could find a 'form of life' in some lion (whose language 
 "we will never understand") where the furious lion sleep furiously. 
Writers have attempted to provide the sentence meaning through context, the 
 first of which was written by Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao, in English.
In 1985, a literary competition was held at Stanford University in which  
the contestants were invited to make Chomsky's sentence meaningful using not  
more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse.
An example entry from the competition, from C.M. Street, is:
It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the  
autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown  
papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel 
to me  that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within 
to give us  the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While 
winter reigns the  earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep 

Fernando Pereira of the University of Pennsylvania has fitted a simple  
statistical Markov model to a body of newspaper text, and shown that under this 
ii. Furiously sleep ideas green colourless.
is, indeed, about 200,000 times less probable than 
i. Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
which is still improbable (vide Popper on 'Improbability and  
Pereira's statistical model defines a similarity metric, whereby sentences  
which are more like those within a corpus in certain respects are assigned  
higher values than sentences less alike. 
Pereira's model assigns an ungrammatical version of the same sentence a  
lower probability than the syntactically correct form demonstrating that  
statistical models can learn grammaticality distinctions with minimal 
However, it is not clear that the model assigns every ungrammatical  
sentence a lower probability than every grammatical sentence. 
That is, 
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
may still be statistically more "remote" from English than some  
ungrammatical sentences. 
It's different now after Reeve's quatrain, and the Stanford contest. (Oddly 
 Grice loved Stanford and would held joint seminars with Stanford faculty  
while on the Berkeley hills -- "Hands across the Bay", he poetically 
entitled  the series (seeing that J. O. Urmson and S. N. Hampshire, and other 
former  members of the Oxonian Play Group had settled, albeit temporarily, 
'across  the bay'). 
To this, it may be argued that no current theory of grammar is capable of  
distinguishing all grammatical English sentences from ungrammatical ones.

There is at least one earlier example of such a sentence, and probably  
many more. 
The pioneering French syntactician Lucien Tesnière came up with the French  
Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite.
The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail
And Adriano Palma with
Bananas are frozen music.
Also Carnap:
Caesar is a prime number
Pirots karulise elatically
(vide: Grice: How pirots karulise elatically: some simpler ways")
The game of cadavre exquis (1925) is a method for generating nonsense  
It was named after the first sentence generated
Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.
The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.
In the popular game of "Mad Libs", a chosen player asks each other player  
to provide parts of speech without providing any contextual information 
(e.g.,  "Give me a proper noun", or "Give me an adjective"), and these words 
 inserted into pre-composed sentences with a correct grammatical structure, 
but  in which certain words have been omitted. 
The alleged Griceian humour of the game lies in its implicature, i.e. in  
the generation of sentences (as uttered by Griceian utterers) which are  
grammatical but which are meaningless or have absurd or ambiguous meanings 
 as 'loud sharks') -- "which may still IMPLICATE this or that", to use 
Grice's  moral.
The game also tends to generate humorous double entendres ("some of a  
risqué nature," Grice grants). 
There are doubtlessly earlier examples of such sentences, possibly from the 
 philosophy of language literature, but not necessarily uncontroversial 
ones,  given that the focus has been mostly on borderline cases. 
For example, followers of logical positivism held that "metaphysical" (i.e. 
 not empirically verifiable) statements are simply meaningless; e.g. Rudolf 
 Carnap wrote an article where he argued that almost every sentence from  
Heidegger was grammatically correct, yet meaningless. 
Nothings noths.
Carnap will go on to write a book on this: the logical syntax. 
Of course, some philosophers who were not logical positivists disagreed  
with this -- such as Popper.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell used the sentence 
Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.
and Ryle
Monday is in bed with Saturday.
to make a similar point.
W.V. Quine (closer to Chomsky's territory, on the same side of the Charles, 
 but across township, into Cambridge, and the oldest university in America 
-- his  dissertation in mathematics, rather than philosoophy) took issue  
with Russell on the grounds that for a sentence to be false is nothing more  
than for it not to be true.
And since quadruplicity doesn't drink anything, the sentence is simply  
false, not meaningless.
Similarly, Grice argues:
It is false that colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
One problem with Grice is Strawson's 'ditto' theory of truth and falsehood. 
 Thus, the above seems to implicate that someone held it to be true, 
allegedly  Chomsky (which he didn't). 
Examples like Tesnière's and Chomsky's are the least controversially  
nonsensical, and Chomsky's example remains by far, and perhaps oddly for that  
reason, the most infamous.
John Hollander wrote a poem titled "Coiled Alizarine" in his book The Night 
 Mirror. It ends with Chomsky's sentence. So did Reeve.
Clive James wrote a poem titled "A Line and a Theme from Noam Chomsky" in  
his book Other Passports: Poems 1958-1985. 
It opens with Chomsky's second meaningless sentence and discusses the  
Vietnam War.
Another approach is to create a syntactically-correct, easily parsable  
sentence using nonsense words; a famous such example is 
The gostak distims the doshes.
Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky is also famous for using this technique,  
although in this case for literary purposes.
And Humpty Dumpty (usually taken as a parody of Grice) famously explicates  
all the implicatures behind this poem that fascinated, for some reason, 
Alice  Hargreaves.
Similar sentences used in neuroscience experiments are thus called  
Jabberwocky sentences (after C. L. Dodgson). And Jabberwocky has been 
to Latin.
In Russian schools of linguistics, the glokaya kuzdra example has similar  
Other arguably "meaningless utterances" are ones that make sense, are  
grammatical, but have no reference to the present state of the world, such as 
The King of France is bald.
since there is no King of France today (see Neal, Definite  descriptions).

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

James while John had...had a better effect on the teacher

Moore's paradox: It is raining, but I don't believe it.

Poverty of the stimulus

Universal grammar

The Invisible Pink Unicorn and Meinong's Square Triangle (item of world  3?)


Chomsky, Noam (September 1956). "Three Models for the Description of  
Language". IRE Transactions on Information Theory 2 (3): 113–124. 
Chomsky,  Noam (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton. p. 
15. ISBN  3-11-017279-8.
"Furiously" American Heritage Dictionary, 2014. 
Chao,  Yuen Ren. "Making Sense Out of Nonsense". The Sesquipedalian, vol. 
VII, no. 32  (June 12, 1997). Archived from the original.
"LINGUIST List 2.457". 
Pereira, Fernando (2000). "Formal grammar and  information theory: together 
again?". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal  Society 358 (1769): 1239–
1253 -- and related post Language Log.

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