Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

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Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously - © Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. The sentence was originally used in his 1955 thesis The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory and in his 1956 paper “Three Models for the Description of Language”. Although the sentence is grammatically correct, no obvious understandable meaning can be derived from it, and thus it demonstrates the distinction between syntax and semantics. As an example of a category mistake, it was used to show the inadequacy of certain probabilistic models of grammar, and the need for more structured models.

Chomsky writes in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures:

  1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  2. *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally “remote” from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not grammatical.

While the meaninglessness of the sentence is often considered fundamental to Chomsky’s point, Chomsky was only relying on the sentences having never been spoken before. Thus, even if one were to ascribe a likely and reasonable meaning to the sentence, the grammaticality of the sentence is concrete despite being the first time a person had ever uttered the statement, or any part thereof in such a combination. This was used then as a counter-example to the idea that the human speech engine was based upon statistical models, such as a Markov chain, or simple statistics of words following others.

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