IQ issue

William S. Lear rael at
Mon Feb 8 07:19:52 PST 1999

On Mon, February 8, 1999 at 07:22:10 (-0500) Margaret writes:
>He does indeed think form and content are distinct.
>He's a little bit famous in psycholinguistics for the
>now-universally-accepted notion of 'deep structure'
>(content) vs 'surface structure' (form).
>The famous example of Chomsky's alluded to by Paul is
>illustrative -- 'colorless green ideas sleep
>furiously'. If we're native speakers, we immediately
>recognise that the form is fine -- it conforms to all
>our syntactic rules for sentences -- and that
>'well-formedness' by itself conveys a tantalising sense
>of meaningfulness.
>But looking at the deep structure of the sentence --
>the actual meaning -- reveals that it's nonsensical.
>The rules of deep structure say, for example, that
>concepts cannot meaningfully have contradictory values.
>Thus, even if we grant that the concept of 'idea' can
>somehow (poetically, maybe) have a color property, that
>color property cannot have both 'colorless' and 'green'
>values at the same time.
>Form is fine, content is rubbish. Two different

Actually, I think your example is completely wrong. You are confusing form/content with deep/surface structures. According to Chomsky, "the syntactic component of a grammar must specify, for each sentence, a *deep structure* that determines its semantic interpretation and a *surface structure* that determines its phonetic interpretation. The first of these is interpreted by the semantic component; the second, by the phonological component" (*Aspects of the Theory of Syntax*, p. 16).

Incidentally, here's an interview found on

Chomsky: Well, a small industry has been spawned by one linguistic example, namely, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, which has been the source of poems and arguments and music and so on.

Howard Lasnik: This is a very interesting sentence because it shows that syntax can be separated from semantics, that form can be separated from meaning. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Doesn't seem to mean anything coherent but sounds like an English sentence. If you read it back to front -- furiously sleep ideas green colorless -- that wouldn't sound like English at all.

Chomsky: Well that tells us that there's more to what determines the structure of a sentence than whether it has meaning or not...

Howard Lasnik: For a sentence to be sentence of English in terms of its structure, it doesn't seem to matter much what the words mean or whether they go together in a meaningful way, [what matters is] just that they're together in a way that obeys the rules of syntax.


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