Grammar Shorts: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

766px-chomsky Noam Chomsky

I love grammar and how the English language works. I’m not a Grammar Nazi by any means, but I do like to study and know the rules of Prescriptive Grammar and the unusual diversity of Descriptive Grammar.

The sentence I used in the title, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was written by Noam Chomsky in 1957 to demonstrate that syntax and semantics are two very separate parts of a sentence. I find it interesting that the syntax of the sentence is grammatically correct in spite of the fact that the sentence is semantically incoherent. In his sentence, Chomsky broke away from coherent lexical semantics but not from the building blocks of a sentence—the syntax.

These types of discussions show how innate grammar is within the human mind. For example, we all know that if we see an article before a word that it’s a noun. It’s instinctive. In Chomsky’s sentence, the basic structure is a subject (ideas) and an intransitive verb (sleep). Ideas is the subject; sleep is an intransitive verb, furiously is an adverb of manner and colorless and green are adjectives that are modifying the subject (ideas). Why does this matter to the writer? What is the point?

We all have an innate ability to understand grammar. To become good writers, we simply have to put forth the effort to study our craft. Voracious reading, for example, enforces the innate abilities of our mind to understand and follow the rules of grammar. However, if you’re a serious writer, you should also study some grammar lessons. Purdue Owl is a fantastic site that offers grammar advice and lessons for free.

In the sentence, we see that we can break the rules of semantics, and yet, we get a feel for the fact that the sentence is still grammatically correct. Here is an example. If I write a sentence like the following: The gruurific rolfoled minically. You can see by the rules of grammar and the structure of syntax that the word I created “gruurific” is a noun subject because it is preceded by a definite article (The). Then, you know because of your innate familiarity with syntax that “rolfoled” is a verb and that “minically” is an adverb (of manner). We know that an adverb modifies a verb, and we can see that the “ly” suffix indicates an adverb, but it also follows an intransitive verb which is also indicative of an adverb.  Finally, we know the verb “rolfoled” is intransitive because if we remove the adverb “minically” the sentence would still be grammatical: The gruurific rolfoled. It’s the same structure—syntactically—as “The dog slept.”

I know I’m probably speaking to the grammar nerds now, and the rest of you have fallen asleep; however, if you grasp what I’m trying to point out, it will give you hope as a writer—particularly if you’re a self-trained writer—that grammar is, in fact, innate. And, that there is no such thing as bad grammar. Oh…I just heard the grammar Nazis out there scream “foul.”

Grammar is a set of linguistic phonemes and morphemes that create a communication between people. It does not matter if we understand it, or if it is semantically or linguistically appealing; what makes it a grammar is if people that use it understand it. Now, I’m a strict fan of the theory that Standard English Grammar is a baseline that should never be abandoned; however, Ebonics is a grammar, and it’s a proper grammar to those who speak it.

These examples explain the difference between the “Prescriptive Grammarians” and the “Descriptive Grammarians.” It also shows the writer the intent behind the statement: “Once you understand the rules you can break them.”

You can’t break the rules and survive in academic settings or writings, but you can darn sure break them in creative writing. Right? (See, a one-word sentence, oh my!).

The premise behind this post is to encourage the untrained or trained writer to believe in themselves and in their ability to write coherently and grammatically correct.

Click for a Grammar Short about verbs! 

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3 comments

  1. Good morning, Scott. From your piece, “I know I’m probably speaking to the grammar nerds now, and the rest of you have fallen asleep; however, if you grasp what I’m trying to point out, it will give you hope as a writer—particularly if you’re a self-trained writer—that grammar is, in fact, innate.”

    I appreciate the fact that you encourage all of us to take chances, trust in our innate abilities to discern what’s correct when we learn the rules, but exercise some freedom of express in our writing.

    Good job, Scott.

  2. I can see this providing a lot of fun for the lover of the English language. I have encountered Chomsky’s sentence previously in a course on sentence structure, I was in love with the concept of “colourless green” and immediately thought ‘hey I know that colour’, but I was, naturally, incorrect. Your interpretation is interesting and agree it is intended to encourage the untrained or trained writer to believe in themselves.

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