Today I would like to build on my investigation into what a word is by trying to answer another deceptively simple question: What is a sentence?
If you remember, I observed, through my own investigation, that words are learned identifiers that point to groups of ideas stored in my memory. If this is true about words, my investigation into sentences should reflect and support this idea.
Why We Need Sentences
I will start with the purpose of a sentence. Why do we need sentences at all? The purpose of a sentence is to convey more specific information than what is possible with a single word. This is not a definition, this is an observation. It is easy to imagine scenarios where individual words would not convey enough information or convey information that is too general to be useful. In order to express specific ideas, we must combine words, combine ideas, to get the job done. Consider the following progression from a single word to a specific idea:
Dog. The dog. The dog ate. The dog ate soup. The dog ate soup and. The dog ate soup and burned. The dog ate soup and burned his. The dog ate soup and burned his tongue.
Each additional word serves to shrink the scope of possible ideas — the dog didn’t burn his nose, he burned his tongue; he wasn’t a cat, but a dog, he didn’t dance, he ate soup; and so on. The sentence moves from the general to the specific.
How Sentences Work
A sentence conveys more specific information through the concatenation and arrangement of words, or ideas not necessarily expressed in words, which nevertheless affect the context of a sentence. I say words or ideas, because words are not the only source of information contributing to the meaning of a sentence. An image accompanying a sequence of words provides context. The words that come before a given word provide context, and so on. I will continue to refer to both words and ideas together as words for simplicity’s sake, but keep in mind that context, which informs the audience of the scope of ideas being conveyed by a sentence, can come from sources other than words. For now, let’s look into how the concatenation and arrangement of words work to synthesize more specific ideas.
Human beings have a tendency to synthesize relationships among separate things. I can observe this in my daily life. I synthesize relationships based on temporal proximity: first this happened, and then that happened, so they are related. I synthesize relationships based on spacial proximity: this is next to that, so they are related. My mind takes even the most arbitrary details and forms mental relationships among disparate things in its attempt to make sense of the world. This means that it is important not only that words are presented together (spatial relationship), but also that they are presented in a particular arrangement (temporal relationship) — both relationships inform meaning.
Words spoken or read in proximity to each other will prompt our minds to find spacial and temporal relationships among them, to seek meaning. The “how”s and “why”s of this phenomenon are irrelevant to my current investigation (although I have my theories). For right now, it only matters that this human tendency is an observable, consistent phenomenon, and that sentences take advantage of this tendency to synthesize meaning from separate ideas (words and non-words). This is how sentences generate meaning; this is how they work.
Sentences Contract from General to Specific
So how does the synthesis of separate ideas synthesize a more specific meaning? As more words are added to a sentence, the scope of the possible ideas being conveyed in a sentence shrinks; that is, as words are added, the possibilities of what a sentence is able to convey are reduced; the scope of possible ideas contract from general ideas to specific ones.
We observed this in the sentence about the dog and the soup above, but we can observe this in any sentence. “The cat drank and the dog slept,” for example, contains seven words, each one contributing more information to the sentence, information that contracts the scope of possible ideas. We are not interested in any cat, but a specific cat; we are not interested in what the cat thought, or said, or ate, but that the cat drank; we aren’t interested in what the bird dig, but the dog; and so on.
How Sentences Contract
Let’s take a different sentence and break it down to see how this contraction from general to specific takes place:
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
The word “the” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence from anything, to something specific.
The word “grandmother” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to grandmothers, but because of the previous word “the,” the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother and not any grandmother.
The word “didn’t” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to not doing, not doing in the past, and combined with the words “the” and “grandmother,” the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, some time in the past, not doing.
The word “want” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to feeling an urge for something, and combined with the previous words, the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, sometime in the past, not doing, and what is not being done is wanting.
The word “to” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to a relationship, and combined with the previous words, the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, sometime in the past, not wanting something, instead of simply not wanting.
The word “go” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to movement, and combined with the previous words, the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, sometime in the past, not wanting something, and that something not wanted is going.
The word “to” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to a relationship, and combined with the previous words, the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, sometime in the past, not wanting to go somewhere, instead of simply not wanting to go.
And finally “Florida” contracts the possible ideas of this sentence to a place, and combined with the previous words, the scope is contracted further to a specific grandmother, sometime in the past, not wanting to go somewhere, and that somewhere is a place: Florida.
I can see this contraction through concatenation and arrangement happening in all sentences, even in single-word sentences like “Sure” and “Stop!” and “What?” How is this possible? How can there be any concatenation and arrangement taking place if there is only one word?
This is a tricky concept to understand and it goes back to what I said about words in the context of other words or non-words. The sentence “Sure,” might not be concatenated with other words, but it is being concatenated with other ideas (non-words) which contract the possible scope of ideas being conveyed. There is, of course, a speaker — the author or the character — who we hold, or will hold, ideas about, and this is being concatenated with the word “sure,” which is an identifier for a group of ideas regarding assent. We are not interested in anyone saying “sure,” but the speaker saying “sure.” In fact, this sentence could be rewritten as “‘Sure,’ says the author,” or something similar, depending on the context of this sentence. Also, depending on when and how this single-word sentence is presented, there exists an element of arrangement as well, which contracts the scope of possible ideas further, pointing to a more specific meaning.
Keep in mind that without any context, the word “sure” would not be a sentence, because without context, there is only the word and it’s associated ideas, without additional information contracting the scope of possible ideas through concatenation and arrangement, and so it would not convey information more specific than any one of it’s parts is capable of individually. So much for single-word sentences.
Meaning Through Arrangement
It is clear that the more words we add, the more information, the more ideas, are present, and so the more contracted, the more specific, the scope of information being conveyed becomes. But how does the arrangement of these concatenated words affect the meaning of a sentence? Does the meaning of a sentence change with only the rearrangement of its words?
I will consider another sentence to help me investigate this: “I went to see a movie, late last night, a new one about cats, where I ate a lot of food, bad food, food that doesn’t help me lose weight.”
Couldn’t the first part of this sentence be written, “Late last night, I went to see a movie…”? And if it can, does this rearrangement change the meaning of this sentence?
It seems obvious that a sentence starting with “Late last night” and one starting with “I went to the movies” or “I ate a lot of food” affects the meaning in some way. But how can this be if every word is it’s own identifier for a group of ideas?
I think the answer is that a different subset of the ideas associated with a given word is invoked depending on where in the arrangement of a sentence they are presented. The arrangement has subtle affects on the meaning of each word, it changes the emphasis of each word, which changes the relationship between each word, which affects meaning. This is important to note, because even if you use all the same words in a sentence, if you rearrange them, you will have modified the information, contracted the scope of possible ideas being conveyed.
Sentences Grow in a Linear Order
Here’s another interesting question: Does the contraction of possible ideas in sentences happen in a linear order, starting with the first word and ending with the last?
I can only process stimuli as I experience it; this goes for language as well. While new words are presented, they do so over time, and time — so far as I can observe — is linear. No doubt, the mind processes an incredible amount of information in a moment, and that information, especially in live conversation, is constantly bombarding our senses, but every sensation is experienced only after it is received, is processed and applied to what has come before it as it is processed, in a linear way.
So sentences never really move backwards. They never stop. Even when they seem to go backwards to modify something already expressed, they are moving forward, adding new words and ideas, which contract the scope of possible ideas being conveyed. This applies to individual words as well as groups of words.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Here is the big question that’s been on my mind: if this contraction of possible ideas takes place not only with the addition of individual words, but also with groups of words, does it also take place with whole sentences? with paragraphs? with entire stories within a story?
I suppose the only way to find out is to chase this rabbit farther down his hole. This is the question I will pick up with in my next entry on this topic.
That’s all for today. Thank you for reading, and keep writing.