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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Heads I Win; Tails Are Good Too | Main | Idiomatic Syntax »


Giorgio Marchetti

If I have understood well what Bolles’ observation implies, we have to do here with a particular instance of a more general case.

Referring to the sentence:

“Ozzie tried not to drink”,

Bolles observes that:

“If you analyze the sentence formally, however, not to drink is a separate syntactical structure from Ozzie tried, but the subordinate idea is not complete. You cannot tell from its three words who is not drinking. Even though the sentence is likely to strike most readers as transparently simple, its meaning cannot be drawn from its syntactical form alone”.

The problem highlighted by Bolles is that certain parts of speech are not (always) explicitly stated (“The pronoun in this deeper structure is unspoken so our attention can never be steered toward what it refers to”).

In my opinion, this lack of explicitness is a very common trait of many languages: so common that you can find it in simpler, albeit very important, structures, such as for example the noun-adjective correlation, the subject-verb correlation, and the verb-object correlation.

If you consider the noun-adjective correlation, you can realize that apparently there is no part or element that explicitly links or combines the noun with the adjective, and that pilots your attention so as to form a noun-adjective correlation. I say “apparently”, because this function is actually carried out (at least in English) by the order of the words, and by their proximity/nearness.

Say “red” and then after a few seconds say “hat”: the two words have nothing in common: they are isolated. But then say “red hat”: immediately the two words become correlated by means of their position and order (the order is very important: in Italian, an adjective can either follow or precede the noun, giving rise to two different meanings).

Likewise, the case considered by Bolles, the subordination of clauses, is not always explicitly spoken or stated by a word, but sometimes is implicitly left to the order of words (or to some other linguistic device or means).

Not all languages behave in the same way. Each language chooses and adopts its own way of symbolizing (or not symbolizing) meanings: some languages express them explicitly by means of words (or suffixes, prefixes, and so on: see the Italian “fiori rossi” = “red flowers” and “fiore rosso” = “red flower”); some others, leave them to the order of words, to their intonation, and so on.

Nonetheless, whether a language has adopted words, prefixes, the order of words, or whatever else, both the speaker and the listener of a given language know how their language function: that is, they produce and re-produce, respectively, a certain meaning by performing the attentional operations conveyed through the specific means (words, the order of words, suffixes, etc.) adopted by their language. Even a pause, then, can assume a fundamental meaning.

Giorgio Marchetti

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