Re: Syntax Vs. Semantics

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Tue Jun 04 1996 - 21:18:04 BST

> From: "Fryer, Becky" <>
> Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 14:00:56 GMT
> This question could be answered merely by taking a definition out of
> any dictionary or cognitive psychology text book. John R. Anderson
> defines the two in his book " Cognitive psychology and its
> implications"(1995) as,

No, unfortunately it cannot; in fact, NONE of these 77 questions can be
answered by looking up definitions, because what is needed is an
understanding of the concepts involved, and their relation to other
concepts and issues discussed in the course.

> Semantics- Grammatical rules for assigning meaning to a sentence.

No, semantics is what symbols MEAN, not the rules for "assigning" them
meaning. (This is the danger of trying to learn concepts from glossaries
or index pages.)

> Syntax- Grammatical rules for specifying correct word order and
> inflectional structure in a sentence.

Yes, that's natural language syntax, but what about the syntax of
artificial languages? Syntax is rules for manipulating symbls based on
their shapes rather than their menaings.

> Doing this does not really give a clear explanation of the
> differences between the two. It is beter explained if the features of
> the two are explored more thoroughly.
> Word order is the basic principal of syntax, those trying to
> understand what is written use the syntactic cues of word order to
> help give the sentence structure and meaning. Word order gives a
> sentence the correct intonnation especially with the use of funtion
> words such as,a and who, due to this its meaning becomes much
> clearer. If the words of a sentence were not in the correct order
> there would be no syntactic cues as to the meaning of the sentence.

All of this information about word order is fine, but what has it to do
with what was covered in the course? How does it relate to Universal
Grammar? To symbols systems? To the arbitrariness of symbol shapes?

> This point leads on to the difference between syntax and semantics.
> Semantics are an individuals own interpretation of the meaning of a
> "sentence" based on their prior knowledge. Therefore a sentence that
> seemingly makes no syntactic sense, can have meaning when using
> semantic cues. The sentence "Baby milk drinks" does not have a
> syntactic meaning, but through semantics most people would interpret
> it as meaning " Baby drinks milk " as our prior knowledge tells us
> that a baby drinks milk, and therefore we can find a meaning from the
> key words.

Fine, but again, what does this have to do with what has been discussed
in the course? Yes, we can interpret symbols as meaning something, but
how? What is going on in our heads that gives the symbols meaning? It
can be still more menaingless symbols. You can't get semantics out of
syntax. That's the symbol grounding problem.

> The difference between syntax and semantics is that syntax is only
> concerned with what is linguistically and grammatically correct,
> semantics requires all ones prior knowledge which, as Anderson
> states, " goes far beyond anything which is language specific".

Unfortunately, Anderson did not help very much with this one; I hope
that the skywriting will help more.

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