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Is there a definition of "sentence" that is applicable to all languages?

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    Maybe the "dumb robot" is there for a reason - you could elaborate a little more on your question, e.g. a suggestion of what you think might be an approach to such a definition, or what you would critizise in already existing definitions if you don't consider them universally applicable enough.
    – lemontree
    Aug 22 '16 at 22:58
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    you can "apply" a concept like "sentence" to any language. that does not mean there are sentences in the language. Note the difference between the linguistic concept of "sentence" and the extra-linguistic concept of "complete thought".
    – mobileink
    Aug 22 '16 at 23:32
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    @user6726: That's not a definition of sentence; that's how a sentence is marked when it's analyzed in a certain way. Nonterminal nodes like S are not things that can be identified in the field. The real question is whether there is a useful and universal definition of sentence. I tend to doubt it.
    – jlawler
    Aug 23 '16 at 14:22
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    Right. Is 'sentence' a phantasm of theory or Europeanness, or does it actually refer to some linguistic phenomenon? If restricted to English, it's not hard to define 'sentence' operationally. But does that definition depend on things that don't occur in every language?
    – jlawler
    Aug 23 '16 at 16:31
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    Surely 'sentence' is not a linguistic entity, but a general term we use to refer to a variety of linguistic entitites. Aug 24 '16 at 1:28
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Yes:

A word or set of grammatically linked words expressing a complete thought.

"Expressing a complete thought" is context-dependent: "Sure" might or might not be a sentence. It is as an answer to, "Care for some coffee?" but not as part of "Don't be so sure".

The context needn't be conversational: "INT. DAY" is a sentence, in the context of a movie script.

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  • Why do you think that is the definition of sentence? What does it mean to be a "complete thought"?
    – user6726
    Aug 22 '16 at 23:16
  • i.imgur.com/A4MQIDr.jpg you almost got me Aug 22 '16 at 23:38
  • I like the approach, but would "A lot" as an answer to "What comes to your mind when thinking about the universe" be a valid "complete thought"?
    – lemontree
    Aug 23 '16 at 0:13
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    @MichaelHardy you are correct. Any non-circular definition of "sentence" is outside the domain of syntax. Aug 23 '16 at 4:25
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    It would help to have a definition in linguistic terms that could at least serve as a field guide to humans who would like to identify the linguistic phenomena but don't have linguists nearby to blaze the trees for them. "Complete thought" is not helpful. How about predication? How about different varieties, like polysynthetic sentences versus analytic sentences? How about constituency?
    – jlawler
    Aug 23 '16 at 14:27
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I agree with the comments - it would help if you narrowed down the perspective from which you look on the topic. My primary approach would be actually top-down definition, i.e. sentence as a constitutive element of an utterance.

Utterance - a unit of speech typically with silence on the part of a speaker as boundaries.

Sentence - a unit constituting an utterance and intended to correspond to a meaningful complex structuring an idea, determined on many different levels requiring to structure one's speech into finite units due to our physiological and cognitive limitations.

Syntactic clause/phrase or Speech clause - depending further on perspective assumed a constitutive unit of sentence.

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Since it may not be clear to everyone what makes a thought complete, the best notion to 'define' what makes a phrase a sentence is to say what it takes to evaluate it as true or false ( or neither). Meaning defines form - not everyone will like that!

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    Maybe this will work for declarative sentences. But "Where is John?" and "Sit down!" are not true or false, but both are sentences. Aug 25 '16 at 20:28
  • How does knowing how to verify that "This cat is ugly" constitute a definition of "sentence"?
    – user6726
    Aug 25 '16 at 22:32
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    @user6726 : I think the idea is that if it doesn't make sense to call it true or false, then it's less than a complete sentence. The phrase "this cat" cannot be true or false. The problem I see with this proposal is that it cannot apply to imperative or interrogative sentences. Aug 26 '16 at 17:32
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    @MichaelHardy, if you ignore context, it doesn't make sense to say that "This cat is ugly" is true or false, since it omits information about the referent of "this cat" and also what the standards of ugliness are. With context, it makes sense. But then with the contextual information that one is proximal to a certain cat and are responding to the question "Which cat killed the rat?", "this cat" has a definite truth value. I conclude that the problem with operational verification is either insurmountable, or doesn't yield what we normally call "sentences".
    – user6726
    Aug 26 '16 at 17:41
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I take a sentence to be declarative, hence questions are not sentences, but, if you like, interrogative phrases, and imperatives are similarly not sentences either, but, if you like, commanding phrases. The standard semantics for questions and imperatives are based on truth-coditional models, but the original question I attempted to address was not about that.

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    Even assuming your convention that only declaratives are sentences, how do you define sentence? I would also follow on the assumption that sentences are declarative by asking why "sentence" is useful for you, and why not replace it with "declarative phrase"?
    – user6726
    Aug 26 '16 at 23:06

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