If a sentence falls onto paper and you weren’t there to see who uttered it, does it still have meaning?

I got into a quarrel with someone the other day because I said a certain sentence meant X and he said: no, the author meant Y. I said, yes, I understand that the author intended to convey Y, but when you look at the sentence as it is, it is actually saying X. Oh no, he said, you can’t just take the sentence and give it whatever meaning you like – but that’s not what I’m doing, I said, I’m not giving it meaning, I’m pointing out what it’s actually saying, all by itself.

My niece, who is a linguist, tells me that this issue is one that is hotly debated in linguistic circles and there is no accepted right or wrong answer – if I understood her correctly, there are two schools of thought: the semanticists, who say a sentence’s meaning depends on the words that make it up; and the pragmaticists, who say it depends on what the person saying/writing it meant. Me, I feel I am being pretty pragmatic in saying: but you can’t always know what the author meant anyway! A sentence, once it’s out of the author’s mouth/keyboard, is just out there, wandering around in the world and bumping into people, and they won’t always be able to ask the author what he meant.

The way I see it, if you come across a sentence there is more than one sensible question you can ask about it. You can ask: what does this sentence mean? And you can also ask: what was the original intention of whoever said/wrote this? The two answers will not always be identical, and here are some reasons I can think of:

– Seeing the sentence on its own, you’re missing the original context in which it was said. That’s what happens sometimes with newspaper reports quoting something a politician has said; or when people pluck a Bible verse out of context. The sentence itself means XYZ, but in order to understand what the person saying it meant, you need to hear more than just this sentence on its own.

– Ambiguity: a word can have more than one meaning, so, without context, the first question may have more than one answer. Take “Mary had a little lamb” – we all know the original context, but it’s a sentence that is just begging to be spoofed, as in: Mary had a little lamb. The doctor was surprised. or: Mary had a little lamb. John chose the vegetarian option. The reason these spoofs work is that the sentence on its own has more than one meaning, because of different senses of the word “had”: owned/gave birth to/ate. (And also different senses of the phrase “a little”)

– The author didn’t phrase it very well – perhaps using the wrong word by mistake (which happens to the best of us), perhaps not phrasing it clearly enough (happens to me a lot, because to me it’s so obvious what I’m trying to say), or maybe just not having a good command of the language.

Of course there may be situations where it isn’t that the two answers aren’t identical, it’s just that you need help in deciphering the meaning of the sentence because it was written in a different era and word usage has drastically changed in the meantime (e.g. Shakespeare, or the King James Bible); or because, say, you’re British and you’re reading something written by an American author. The meaning of words can be different in different times/places, so it can get kind of tricky. If I see the sentence “men should wear pants when they go out of the house”, it means something different in American English and something else entirely in British English. In a way, it’s a question of needing to know which language the sentence was written in – it’s just that we normally speak of “the English language” as though it’s one entity. As an Israeli, I’m conscious of a similar situation in relation to Hebrew – I grew up speaking modern Hebrew, and “everyone knows” that the Jewish Bible (aka Old Testament) was written in Hebrew, right? but Biblical Hebrew is very very different, and I can’t just assume that I know what a verse means just because I know what these words mean in modern Hebrew.

So what am I saying? I’m saying words have meanings, and a sentence on its own has at least one meaning (unless it’s gibberish). You need to know what language it’s in and what version of this language – e.g. British English c.1600, American English c.2010, Biblical Hebrew, modern Israeli Hebrew c.1970, etc. But having established what language it’s in, the sentence on its own does have at least one meaning, which may or may not be what the author intended to convey. As a writer or blogger or just as a human being trying to communicate with other human beings, I try to phrase things in such a way that others will understand what I was trying to say. When that doesn’t work – when I try to convey X but the sentence that comes out of my mouth/keyboard actually says Y – I can say: oops, I didn’t mean it like that, let me try and rephrase… What I can’t say is: no, I meant X and therefore this sentence means X and that’s that.

I’m trying to think of examples and they all come out as totally ridiculous. Imagine if you went into a coffee shop with a friend, and you asked them what they’d like to drink. The friend says “I’d like a tall skinny latte please” but when you get your orders and come back to the table, your friend complains that you didn’t get them a cappuccino. “But you said you wanted a latte”. “Oh no, when I say ‘tall skinny latte’ what I mean is cappuccino.” They may very well have intended to convey their desire for a cappuccino, but that’s not what the sentence “I’d like a tall skinny latte please” actually means, is it?

The sentence “the cat sat on the mat” means that the cat (a feline domestic animal), at a point in time in the past, sat (as opposed to standing or lying or rolling around or jumping up and down) on an object which we refer to as “the mat” – perhaps a doormat, but definitely not a bowl of petunias. Words, and sentences made up of words, have meanings. You can’t make them mean whatever you like – well, you could, but you wouldn’t get very far in communicating with other people.

3 thoughts on “If a sentence falls onto paper and you weren’t there to see who uttered it, does it still have meaning?

  1. something you should know about semanticists and Pragmatics: when they say “there are two schools of thought”, they may mean that there are at least two schools of thought :)

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