• Thursday, December 07, 2023
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Meaning situations in sentence formation


The realisation of meaning in sentences goes beyond the ability to assemble words and master their meanings in isolation. The meanings of sentences or utterances are largely tied to other language features, which I have described in this piece as meaning situations. These meaning situations are capable of affecting, reforming and distorting speaker-intended meaning in language use. On these grounds, it is essential that language users are able to trace their sentences for evidence of such features, in order to use language with clarity. Such meaning situations that will be considered in this piece are: ambiguity, vagueness, presupposition, tautology and paraphrasing.

At the sentential level, ambiguity operates like polysemy. Just as polysemous words are capable of generating two or more meanings, ambiguous expressions, too, can portray more than one meaning. Such complexity makes it difficult for listeners or readers to decipher the speaker’s or writer’s actual meaning. Ambiguity has a worse consequence in writing, particularly when the writer is usually not present to clarify the complexity. Three examples of ambiguity are cited in this article:

A decision was taken on the boat.

This sentence can, on the one hand, mean that a decision was taken while on the boat. It can, on the other hand, mean that a decision was taken concerning the boat.

Read Also: The mechanics of conditional sentences: Zero to third conditionals

Flying planes can be dangerous.

This sentence is another ambiguous one, which can either mean that planes can be dangerous when they are in motion or that the action of flying planes is dangerous.

I found my wife a good cook.

The statement can mean that, ‘I got married to my wife and realised she is a good cook’, and it can also mean that, ‘I got a good cook for my wife’.

Ambiguity blurs clarity in writing, hence it is essential that language users choose their words carefully and take a second look at their written documents to ascertain that the documents do not harbour ambiguous sentences.

Vagueness describes expressions that are not clearly explained. It is also used to describe completely meaningless expressions. It is possible for a sentence to be grammatical yet meaningless. A common example was given by Noam Chomsky thus:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

The following questions immediately come to mind: Can ideas have colours such as green? Can a colourless substance be said to be green? Can ideas sleep? Can humans and animals, who actually sleep, be said to sleep furiously? All of these explain the vagueness of the expression. Another example sentence is:

The moon bears me witness.

In literature and creative writing, such an expression is permissible. However, it is better avoided in academic and formal writing, since communication is better made explicit in such writing.

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Tautology is another language feature that disrupts meaning realisation. Tautology features at lexical and sentential levels. Expressions such as revert/return/extradite/reverse/repatriate/restore back (instead of ‘revert/return/extradite/reverse/repatriate/restore’), still yet (instead of ‘yet’ or ‘still’) and from now henceforth (instead of ‘from now on’ or ‘henceforth’) have been described as tautologies at the lexical level. At the sentential level, one finds expressions that are grammatically correct but are meaningless when carefully analysed. Example sentences are:

The spinster is not married.

The students are still going to school for their last session.

The poor man is not rich at all.

These expressions are mere tautologies, inasmuch as a spinster is a woman who is not married, and just as students are expected to go to school. Similarly, a man who is adjudged poor is not expected to be rich. Except for stylistic and comic purposes, a speaker or writer who desires to be taken seriously should not use language this way.

Presupposition is a piece of information that the speaker assumes that the listener knows. This usually means that there is common ground between the speaker and the listener. In such situations, the speaker’s interpretation of an utterance is tied to the background knowledge that the interlocutors share. An example is seen in the interaction between two friends at the point the national anthem is being sung at a programme:

Speaker A: Do you want us to fry you eggs?

Speaker B: My legs hurt.

In the exchange above, the presupposition is that Speaker A knows that Speaker B ought to stand when the national anthem is being sung. This mutual knowledge is affirmed by Speaker B, who gave a reason for acting contrary to expectations, rather than to feign ignorance. Presupposition makes communication take place with fewer words. However, interlocutors must be sure of the shared background knowledge before deploying presupposition.

While synonyms relate to words, paraphrasing applies to sentences. It is a meaning situation where two or more sentences give a single interpretation. Paraphrasing is essential when re-presenting someone else’s idea in order to avoid mindless lifting. Examples of paraphrasing are:

Dr GAB is a lecturer.

Dr GAB teaches at a university.

Both sentences communicate the same meaning, but they differ slightly in structure.

It is clear from the discussion in this treatise that in sentence formation and interpretations, there are issues beyond grammatical correctness. As such, it is of paramount importance for users of language to pay attention to such features of language use, with a view to avoiding communication failure and aiding clarity in language use.