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Chapter 5


Sentences, Utterances

and Propositions




This unit introduces some basic notions in semantics. It is important that you master these notions from the outset as they will keep recurring throughout the course.

Read the following out loud:


            Virtue is its own reward


Now read it out loud again.


The same sentences was involved n the two readings, but you made two different utterances, i.e. two unique physical events took place.





An UTTERANCE is any stretch of talk, by one person, before and after which there is silence on the part of that person.

       An utterance is the use by a particular speaker, on a particular occasion, of a piece  of language, such as a sequence of sentences, or a single phrase, or even a single word.


Practice : Now decide whether the following could represent utterances. Indicate your answer by circling Yes or No.


(1)   “Hello”                                                                      Yes/No

(2)   “Not much”                                                               Yes/No

(3)   “Utterances may consist of a single word, a single

        phrase or a single sentences. They may also consist

        of a sequence of sentences. It is not unusual to find

        utterances that consist of one or more grammatically

         incomplete sentence-fragments.                                   Yes/No

(4)   “Pxgotmgt”                                                              Yes/No

(5)   “Schplotzenpflaaaaaaaargh!”                                          Yes/No


        Utterances are physical events. Events are ephemeral. Utterances die on the wind. Linguistics deals with spoken language and we will have a lot to say about utterances in this book. But we will concentrate even ore on another notion, that of sentences. A SENTENCE is neither a physical object. It is, conceived abstractly, a string of words put together by the grammatical rules of a language. A sentence can be thought of as the IDEAL string of words behind various realizations in utterances and inscriptions.


Practice : Some examples will help to get the idea of a sentence across. Indicate your answer by circling Yes or No.

(1)   Do all (authentic) performances of ‘Macbeth’ begin

         by using the same sentence?                                      Yes/No

(2)   Do all (authentic) performances of ‘Macbeth’ begin

        by using the same utterance?                                     Yes/No

(3)   Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of a

       sentence?                                                                Yes/No

(4)   Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of an

        utterance?                                                              Yes/No

(5)   Can one talk of a loud sentence?                                  Yes/No

(6)   Can one talk of  slow utterance?                                  Yes/No


In semantics we need to make a careful distinction between utterances and sentences. In particular we need some way of making it clear when we are discussing sentences and when utterances. We adopt the convention that anything written between double quotation marks represents an utterance, and anything italicized represents a sentence or (similarly abstract) part of a sentence, such as a phrase or a word.


Example: “Help” represents an utterance.

    The postillions have been struck by lightning represents a sentence.

    “The postillions have been struck by lightning" represents an utterance.

     John represents a word conceived as part of a sentence.


It would make sense to say that an utterance was in a particular accent (i.e. a particular way of pronouncing words). However, it would not  make strict sense to say that a sentence was in particular accent, because a sentence itself is only associated with phonetic characteristics such as accent and voice quality through a speaker’s act or uttering it. Accent and voice quality belong strictly to the utterance, not to the sentence uttered. Not all utterances are actually tokens of sentences, but sometimes only of parts of sentences, e.g. phrases or single words.





A SENTENCE is a grammatically complete string of words expressing a complete thought. This very traditional definition is unfortunately vague, but it is hard to arrive at a better one for our purposes. It is intended to exclude any string of words that does not have a verb in it, as well as other strings. The idea is best shown by examples.


Example: I would like a cup of coffee is a sentence.

                Coffee, please is not a sentence.

                In the kitchen is not a sentence.

                 Please put it in the kitchen is a sentence.


Practice: Which of the following utterances are tokens of whole sentences (S) and which are not (NS)?


(1)   “John”                                    S/NS

(2)   “Who is there?                       S/NS

(3)   “Mine”                                   S/NS

(4)   “It’s mine”                             S/NS

(5)   “Where shall I …?”                S/NS


Utterances of non-sentences, e.g. short phrases, or single words, are used by people in communication all the time. people do not converse wholly in (tokens of) well-formed sentences. But the abstract idea of a sentence is the basis for understanding even those expressions which are not sentences. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the meanings of non-sentences can best be analyzed by considering them to be abbreviations, or incomplete versions, of whole sentences.

       Semantics is concerned with the meanings of non-sentences, such as phrases and incomplete sentences, just as much as with whole sentences. But it is more convenient to begin our analysis with the case of whole sentences. The meanings of whole sentences involve propositions; the notion of a proposition is central to semantics. What exactly a proposition is, is much debated by semantics. We shall be content with a very simple definition.





A PROPOSITION is that part of the meaning of the utterance of a declarative sentence which describes some state of affairs. The state of  affairs typically involves persons or things referred to by expressions in the sentence. In uttering a declarative sentence a  speaker typically asserts a proposition.

       The notion of truth can be used to decide whether two sentences express different proposition . thus if there is any conceivable set of circumstances in which one sentence is true, while the other is false, we can be sure that they express different propositions.


Practice : Consider the following pairs of sentences. In each case, say whether  there are any circumstances of which one member of the pair  could be true and the other false (assuming in each case that the same name, e.g. Harry , refers to the same person).


(1)   Harry took out the garbage

       Harry took the garbage out                                   Yes / No

(2)   John gave Mary a book

       Mary was given a book by John                             Yes / No

(3)   Isobel loves Tony

       Tony loves Isabel                                           Yes / No


(4)   George danced with Ethel

       George didn’t dance with Ethel                             Yes / No

(5)   Dr Findlay killed Janet

       Dr Findlay caused Janet to die                              Yes / No


In our definition of proposition we explicitly mentioned declarative sentences, but propositions are clearly involved in the meanings of other types of sentences, such as interrogative and imperatives. Normally, when a speaker utters a simple declarative sentence, he commits himself to the truth of the corresponding proposition: i.e. he asserts the proposition. By uttering a simple interrogative or imperative, a speaker can mention a particular proposition, without asserting its truth.

       In saying “John can go” a speaker asserts the proposition that John can go. In saying, Can John go?”, he mentions the same proposition but merely questions its truth. We say that corresponding declaratives and interrogatives (and imperatives) have the same propositional content.


Practice :  

(1)   In the following utterances, is any proposition asserted by the speaker?

(a)   “Have you seen my toothbrush?”                               Yes / No

(b)   “Get out of here this minute!”                                   Yes / No

(c)   “I’m afraid that I’ll have to ask you to leave”                 Yes / No

(2)   Would you say that the members of the following sentence pairs have the same propositional content?

(a)   Go away, will you?                                                        

       You will go away                                                          Yes / No

(b)   Pigs might fly

       I’m a Dutchman                                                           Yes / No

(c)   I am an idiot?

       Am I an idiot?                                                           Yes / No


We shall have a lot to say in later units about utterances, sentences and propositions, since these concepts are at the bottom of all talk about meaning. We shall see that we have to be very careful, when talking about meaning, to make it  clear whether we are dealing with utterances or sentences. To this end we shall try summarizing the relationship between these notions.

       We shall use the terms ‘proposition’, ‘sentence’, and ‘utterance’ in such a way that anything that can be said of propositions can also be said of utterances, but not necessarily vice versa, and anything that can be said of sentences can also be said of utterances, but not necessarily vice versa. We have already seen an example of this when we said it was sensible to talk of a sentence being in a particular language, although one cannot talk of a proposition being in a particular language.


Practice :        

(1)   Fill in the chart below with ‘+’ or ‘—‘ as appropriate. Thus, for example, if it makes sense to think of a proposition being in a particular regional accent, put a ‘+’ in the appropriate box; if not put a ‘—‘.






Can be loud or quiet




Can be grammatical or not




Can be true or false




In a particular regional accent




In a particular language






(2)   Can the same proposition be expressed by different

        sentences?                                                                       Yes / No

(3)  Can the same sentence be realized by different Utterances

       (i.e. have different utterances as tokens)?                                    Yes / No


It is useful to envisage the kind of family tree relationship between these notions shown the diagram. For example, a single proposition could be expressed by using several different sentences (say The Monday Club deposed Mrs Thatcher, or Mrs Thatcher was deposed by The Monday Club ) and each of these sentences could be uttered an infinite number of times.



                 Sentence                                   Sentence                                       Sentence


Utterance          Utterance           Utterance             Utterance         Utterance       Utterance


A proposition is an abstraction that can be grasped by the mind of an individual person. In this sense, a proposition is an object of thought. Do not equate propositions with thoughts, because thoughts are usually held to be private, personal, mental process, whereas propositions are public in the sense that the same proposition is accessible to different persons: different individuals can grasp the same proposition. Furthermore a proposition is not a process, whereas a thought can be seen a process gong in an  individual’s mind. Unfortunately, of course, the word thought is being used in a sense quite like that of the word proposition . The relationship between mental process (e.g. thoughts), abstract semantic entities (e.g. propositions), linguistic entities (e.g. sentences), and actions (e.g. utterances) is problematic and complicated.


Mon, 16 May 2011 @11:13


Bejo Sutrisno, M.Pd


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