Dr. Goodword's Office

Do I Have to Pay Syntax?

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Do you understand the sentence on the right? How in the world can you do it? Dr. Goodword invoked every trick in his bag to mislead you. Obviously, speakers must perceive things in sentences beyond what they receive, for there are two ways to interpret the sentence "Remember, a spoken sentence almost always contains words not intended;" yet, we respond to only one. Why? What stops us from interpreting this sentence the way it is presented in the graphic to the right?

Listening and reading are not passive activities. As your ears receive sentences in your language your mind must actively attack it for its contents. Its weapon: grammar! But 'grammar' in a different sense. Every sentence is full of ambiguities which you must resolve using your knowlege of sentence structure, word structure, and semantics. For example, what does "The British left waffles on the Falkland Islands" mean? The political left in England can't make up its mind on the Falklands? Or the mess sergeants didn't clean up after breakfast? The words and their order are the same under either interpretation. What else can there be in a sentence other than words and their order? Plenty.
Intonation, suffixes like the -s on waffle in the sentence above, word order-all specify grammatical relations between the concepts behind the words in sentences. Our mental dictionary, the list of about 50,000 words we keep in our heads, tells us that left and waffle can either be nouns or verbs. This means that the sentence "The British left waffles on the Falkland Islands," may be parsed in two different ways. Parsing is the way we understand how words in a sentence relate to each other. We can represent the relationships of words in sentences by parsing trees, like the two below. The branches on these trees tells us how each word is related to all the other words in the sentence. The British left waffles on Falkland Islands
Looking at the two syntactical trees of the British headline, we see that the structure we assign to the sentence depends upon whether we decide that British is a noun or an adjective. If we decide that British is an adjective, then left must be the noun it modifies and waffles must be the verb, i.e. [The British left] [waffles on the Falkland Islands (issue)]. Only Tree No. 1 is possible. If, on the other hand, we choose The British as our noun phrase, left must be the verb and waffles then must be another noun, the direct object since it comes after the verb, i.e. [The British] [left waffles on the Falkland Islands], and only Tree No. 2 is possible. The point is that we must apply knowledge about words and sentence structures which is not present in the sounds in order to interpret such sentences as this one either way. Sentence structure is an invisible but essential part of the mental processing of language.
Syntactic ambiguity is important—and not just for politicians. It is a major component of humor in all languages. For example, did you hear about the child who returned from her first visit to Sunday School and when asked how things had gone, replied that she had learned a dumb song about some cross-eyed bear named "Gladly"? Further questioning brought out the fact that her class has been taught a hymn named "Gladly, the Cross I'd Bear". The unusual word order led the child to misanalyze (misparse) the title of the song and assign the phrase the wrong structure; that led to the major misunderstandiung of what the song was about.
So, language tells us much about ourselves, not only how we speak but why we laugh. It makes us laugh. Still, it has been the object of serious research for 4,000 years. The magic word, to repeat, is linguistics. When it turns on the relations of words in sentences, it is called syntax (which isn't a levy on misbehavior, as you can see). The best news is that you can find out much more about it right here at this web portal.
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