IQ issue

Margaret mairead at
Mon Feb 8 11:45:15 PST 1999

"William S. Lear" <rael at>) wrote:

>Actually, I think your example is completely wrong. You are confusing
>form/content with deep/surface structures.

Unless the terms 'form' and 'content' have taken on novel and unfamiliar meanings here, i have to think i'm not confused at all.

>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
>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.
>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.

I think either that we're in violent agreement or i'm missing the point of your quotation. Lasnik is, of course, only re-stating the very point that Chomsky made in developing his surface/deep distinction: they're inherently separable and distinct.

Let's take a more prosaic idea than 'colorless....'. For example, the Dick-and-Jane sentences 'Jane hit the ball', 'the ball was hit by Jane', or even 'Jane hat den Ball geschlagen' and 'Dzhejn pobila myach'. They all exhibit different surface structures but have the same deep structure, i.e., they are superficially different but equivalent in their descriptions of the event.

The 'colorless....' example demonstrates that we can even have pristine syntax without necessarily having any underlying meaning (which was, i'm sure, his point about the IQ research -- syntactically it might be fine, but so what?). The flip side is that good content is not dependent on canonical form, either, as anyone can testify who has carried on a conversation with a non-native or dialect speaker.

Am i still missing something here, do you think?


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