Prescriptive Linguists

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 31 18:21:36 UTC 2008

At 12:48 PM -0500 1/31/08, Andrea Morrow wrote:
>OK, I'm new on this list, but I just have to reply.  Of the variants
>David gives as (according to my reading of his message) examples of
>how ridiculous people have been to say there's no such thing as a
>meaningless sentence, many of them seem OK to me.  They're not
>punctuated as they would be in standard written English, of course,
>but that's not the point.  Here's how I gloss each one:
>>  "Which Mary car did you put in the garage?"
>Which Mary-car did you put in the garage?  Meaning, which of Mary's
>cars did you put in there?  My son (age 16, white Michigander), says
>this kind of thing all the time.
>>  "Which car Mary did you put in the garage?"
>Which car, Mary, did you put in the garage?  Self explanatory.
>>  "Which car did you put in the Mary garage?"
>Which car did you put in the Mary-garage?  Meaning which car did you
>put in the garage associated with or belonging to Mary.  Again, I've
>heard people say this kind of thing in rural Michigan.
>I can't come up with natural-sounding interpretations of the other
>ones, but I wouldn't be surprised if other people could.
>It seems to me that we all know there CAN BE meaningless strings of
>words, but if speakers find meaning in certain ones, it doesn't make
>sense to call THOSE meaningless.  And what may seem meaningless to me,
>may be meaningful to someone else.  Apologies if this is way too
I think the the claim in question is never about a particular string
of words, but only about a sentence with a particular structure on a
particular interpretation, so the crucial point is that for some
(obviously not all) speakers, the original question ("Which car did
you put Mary in the garage") is acceptable *on the relevant reading*,
with "Mary" as what we've been calling a dative or
beneficiary/benefactive, hence equivalent to "Which car did you put
in the garage for Mary?"  This sentence is no more gibberish for such
speakers than its equivalent would be for speakers of German.  I'm
not sure it makes sense to judge a string of words
acceptable/meaningful or unacceptable/meaningless in vacuo, without
assigning a structure to it, and that's part of what punctuation
reflects for the written language.


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