In statements of generic truth like "water boils," does it entail statements like "water exists"? If I describe something not real, am I saying something false? For example,

Dragons have wings.

Since dragons don't exist, the above statement would be false if generic truths like "dragons have wings" entail "dragons exist." However, portrayals of dragons often show them with wings, so it feels very strange to think of the statement "dragons have wings" as false, and I am at a loss on if I should think of a sentence describing something nonexistent as true or false. The sentence is the same structure as "elephants have trunks" which has a link that states "Such statements are true in the past, present, and future--as long as elephants exist." There are still other sentences that trouble me on whether people would consider them true or false.

Things stop moving at absolute zero.

Absolute zero is impossible to reach, so would this be considered false?

What confuses me about these generic truths is that I'm not sure where, when, and what situation they occur since wikipedia said this about the gnomic aspect.

Used to describe an aspect, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the flow of time to any particular conception (for example, the conceptions of time as continuous, habitual, perfective, etc.). Used to describe a mood, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the expression of words to the speaker's attitude toward them (e.g. as indicative, subjunctive, potential, etc.). Used to describe a tense, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting action, in particular, to the past, present, or future. Examples of the gnomic include such generic statements as: "birds fly"; "sugar is sweet"; and "a mother can always tell".

So if I made sentences like

I have a heater that has never been heated and will never heat.

I have a machine that heats that has never heated and will never heat.

The machine I described does heat, but that doesn't happen in past, present, or future, so when does it heat? I know that present tense can be used to describe imaginary situations like stories, but the context of my sample sentence is that of a heater that does exist. I could say that the context omits a clause like "If used...heats", but that would make the sentence a conditional, and "I have a machine that heats that has never heated and will never heat" is not a conditional.

  • 1
    You are touching on a few different issues here, but for one thing you are conflating entailment with presupposition. You might want to read up a bit on the difference between the two. The textbook example of presupposition is "The present king of France is bald"--the truth value of which is difficult to evaluate because the statement presupposes that there is a king of France when there isn't. Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 13:41
  • The distinction is often mediated by different predicates, though there are plenty of other constructions that presuppose various types of proposition.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 16:29
  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs on Philosophy
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 13:54

3 Answers 3


To interpret some sentences in the way their author intended, you have to imagine circumstances different from those you believe to actually obtain. If you refuse to do that, you are deemed communicatively uncooperative. We are all very practiced at creating new worlds as settings for what people say and write. It's not a problem.

Somewhere or other, George Lakoff proposed that linguists' grammars should generate pairs of sentences and presuppositions, rather than just sentences.


You are basically restating an hundred-year old problem of logical semantics that has occupied the time of famous philosophers like Bertrand Russell. His example sentence was "The kind of France is bald." Various solutions were proposed within logic including the 'possible worlds' theory and the 'sense/reference' distinction. @user6726 is right, you would get a far better answer to the current thinking on this on Philosophy SE.

However, this is also a linguistics problem. At least from two perspectives.

  1. Linguistics shares referential theory of meaning and its problems with philosophy. Many semanticians have held some form of the truth-conditional theory of meaning. I.e. the meaning of a statement is its truth value. This is incredibly useful in formal semantics and computational approaches to language but (in much current thinking) a complete dead end for thinking about meaning. So, by bringing up a question like this, you are raising a disciplinary debate about the nature of meaning in language.

  2. Purely and uncontroversially within linguistics, your examples raise questions of speech acts and presupposition which are two concepts introduced into thinking about language at least in part as an antidote to the truth-conditional view of semantics. The core of the idea is to look at the communicative action performed by a statement rather than just whether it is true or not. In this way, the truth conditions are irrelevant to most language that is spoken. Speakers' intentions, context, assumed knowledge, etc. - all of those are more important to understanding an utterance or text than whether we can map it onto the world or not.

Many of your examples were addressed directly and very powerfully by Michel Fauconnier in Mental Spaces which he later developed with Mark Turner into the conceptual integration or blending theory. I highly recommend their The Way We Think. George Lakoff has enriched mental spaces with his notion of idealized cognitive models or later frames which also address many of your questions. I recommend the first few chapters of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things to understand the depth of the challenge to the truth-conditional approach to meaning which your question assumes. A more complete elaboration of these issues can be found in Leonard Talmy's cognitive semantics. Look in Part 2 of Volume 2 at semantic interaction for treatment of the issues you raise.

With a richer conception of meaning than referential truth, you will find that your problems simply disappear but in that will open a far more complex and interesting world of meaning making in language than Frege, Russell and the like could grasp with their riddles.

  • Yes, this is Late Wittgenstein, not Early Wittgenstein. All questions.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 15:52
  • Which chapters of The Way We Think address my examples?
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 10:38
  • I think the first three chapters address some of the same issues. However, the point was not that they can resolve your problem but rather provide a different way of thinking about it. I think Fauconnier's Mental Spaces deal with your types of examples more explicitly. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 15:08

IMO this question is off-topic and should be on Philosophy SE, but I'll explain why. Even though linguists throw around some of these terms, the crucial issues are not linguistic. Your premise is that dragons don't exist, which is false. "Existence" does not simply mean "have mass and occupy a definite space" – that would be appropriate for an "entity". Existence is more abstract, and things can exist as concepts. Dragons do exist as concepts, they just don't have entity counterparts. "Freedom" likewise isn't an entity, but it exists qua concept. Aleph-1 "exists", though only as a mathematical concept. Your heater problem is an instance of a "broken unit", meaning that you have the wrong understanding of how category-membership is determined.

  • 1
    Whether a topic is properly linguistic is not just a matter of individual opinion. It's not up to you. Analysis involving presuppositions and reference has been the subject of linguistics dissertations, articles in linguistics journals, linguistics conferences and workshops.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 19:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.