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SYNTAX AND SENTENCE INTERPRETATION

SYNTAX AND SENTENCE INTERPRETATION,John Limber

SYNTAX AND SENTENCE INTERPRETATION   (Citations: 1)
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theory of sentence interpretation is that there are degrees or levels of understanding. My not understanding a request to close the door when spoken in Finnish is quite a different matter than my failure to understand a statement in English concerning some principle of quantum mechanics. Understanding is an open ended dimension; at one end it is fixed firmly upon specific linguistic information and skill, but it unfolds rapidly into a complex web of virtually unknown conceptual abilities and personal experiences. In casual conversation we normally assume the listener is understanding us unless he questions us or makes an unexpected reply. However, we also know that merely participating in a conversation does not ensure that all participants understand each other, or even care to. In more important discussions or research contexts, one wants evidence that the listener understands the message. Repetition generally will not do. One expects something more, something that indicates some analysis or comprehension on the part of the listener. Of increasing reassurance might be evidence that the listener is able to answer simple questions, formulate reasonable paraphrases, and make plausible inferences on the basis of the utterance. Hearing that Sally is heavier than Sue, a listener who understands knows that Sue is lighter than Sally. After mentioning that I had to return a birthday gift because it was too tall for my livingroom, I can expect listeners to guess that the gift might have been a lamp, a plant, a grandfather clock or even a pet giraffe. Certainly, as readers may varify for themselves, the guesses are not made at random but are based instead on presuppositions on the use of the adjective tall (Limber, 1969) among other things. Indeed, it is the listener's ability to reliably make such inferences that provides an extremely important empirical constraint upon any theory of sentence interpretation. The focus here is upon the role of syntax in the interpretative process. Hence, it is necessary to restrict the inquiry to those aspects of the message that are carried by the linguistic code itself. This is a substantial and artificial restriction, for it is clear that the interpretation accorded a sentence on any given occasion may vary according to a variety of extra-linguistic parameters. Such things as prior communications, winks, grimaces, gestures, tone of voice, metaphorical extension, and, of course, the pragmatics of reference (Limber, 1976) all contribute to the meaning of an utterance in conjunction with its intrinsic semantic content. We know that the subject of I am sick must refer to the speaker; yet the actual referent of I obviously depends on who the speaker is. An utterance of I'm not very hungry tonight may on one occasion be taken as a reflection of the speaker's hunger; yet on another, as a polite rejection of a second helping of sauerkraut with ginger. It is, therefore, common practice to distinguish between the meaning associated with a sentence on the basis of its linguistic form and an interpretation given to that sentence on any particular occasion of its use. To reinforce this distinction, it is useful to
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