I'm very new to this field and I'm now studying semantics. I got a question on the difference between Sentence/Utterance/Proposition. Could someone clarify the following example to me?

1: I have a car

2: Sorry?

1: I have a car

2: You have a car

1: Yes.

How many Sentence/Utterance/Proposition are in this conversation? I guess the answer might be 2/5/1 but I'm not sure.

  • 1
    What are the definitions of sentence/utterance/proposition that you act on? – lemontree Sep 17 '17 at 23:48

I can vouch for my answer from the perspective of how philosophers in general (and philosophers of language at the introductory level) answers this. For linguistics, I include what I was able to glean, but apparently there's a large diversity of opinion on these questions.

1 A: I have a car

2 B: Sorry?

3 A: I have a car

4 B: You have a car

5 A: Yes.

First, off I've taken the liberty of changing 1 and 2 to A and B, so that we can put line numbers on the front.

Now to give some simple definitions and see where things lie:

If we take utterance to mean

a distinct instance of verbal linguistic expression often seen as interrupted by silence.

Here, in the conversation you post A makes 3 utterances and B makes 2 utterances. So there are 5 utterances since utterances always carry with them the specificity of when they are uttered. Apparently, there's disagreement about what constitutes an utterance.

Wikipedia claims that a sentence in linguistics is

a textual unit consisting of one or more words that are grammatically linked.

On this type of definition, I would actually count 5 sentences -- one for each utterance because no utterance here contains multiple sentences, and the units are broken by the utterances (sentences) of the other speaker. I would count 4 distinct sentences because "I have a car" is repeated.

In philosophy, proposition, it is a claim about the world that can be either true or false. On this definition, there is only 1 clear proposition that occurs throughout:

A has a car.

Lines 1,3, and 4 are expressions in sentences and utterances of this same content. Yes, the "I"/"you" varies but it doesn't change the content of the proposition.

Line 2 would not be a proposition in philosophy since a question is not true or false.

It might be possible to argue that the final line (5) A: "Yes" contains a second proposition or repeats the first one.

A affirms/confirms that the proposition A has a car is true.

But unless there's some special reason to be so pedantic, I wouldn't draw out a second proposition from it.

In the definition of proposition used by SIL's linguistics glossary,

A proposition is that part of the meaning of a clause or sentence that is constant, despite changes in such things as the voice or illocutionary force of the clause.

If I'm reading it correctly there are two or maybe even three propositions here,

1,3,4 = A has a car. 2 = B is sorry [presumably for misunderstanding A or something like that?] 5 = either same 1,3,4 or the same issue as identified in the philosophy account (is it a repetition or a claim with respect to the claim).

Apparently these terms are used in very different ways by linguists in different subdisciplines.

  • First, SIL is not a authoritative source for terminology: you have to extract that from the Actual Literature (good luck). Second, linguists do not even largely agree. Third, there are three distinct sub-trend in linguistics (semantics), the philosophical, the syntax-driven, and the functional. The first is exemplified by formal semantics e.g. Hintikka, Dowty etc; the second by Minimalist semantics; the third by cognitive psychology (e.g. Lakoff). The distinction prop/utt/sent is most sensible under the first approach, and probably least sensible (though not non-existent) in the third. – user6726 Sep 14 '17 at 15:27
  • Thanks for the feedback, it's helpful to know there's no place like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for linguistics... I'll amend my answer to mark this. – virmaior Sep 14 '17 at 15:50

An utterance is the perfect or imperfect use of a particular sentence on a particular occasion.

A sentence is an ideal string of words representing a proposition.

A proposition is the underlying sense.

There are 5 utterances for sure. How many sentences and propositions are involved is debatable.

Edit: Sentences are debatable because it depends on how many propositions you believe there are, which depends on which propositions you think each of these utterances is linked ultimately to.

  • "Why do you think the # of sentences is debatable?" (From the edit queue; OP doesn't have the rep to comment directly.) – Draconis Sep 14 '17 at 2:25

"Proposition" is a category in logic, not in grammar. A proposition is a statement about the state of affairs of the world, and it can be true or false. In your example, "I have a car" is a proposition. Notice that it is the same proposition as "Tiengo un coche", "J'ai un auto", "Tenho um carro", etc, though those are evidently different sentences or utterances.

"Sentence" is a category in grammar, not in logic. It is a complete meaningful utterance. "I have a car" is a sentence as much as a proposition, and it may be said that all propositions must be a grammatical sentence. But the opposite is not true; for instance "Do I have a car?" is a sentence, but not a proposition. Notice that "I have a car" and "I own a car" are the same proposition, but different sentences.

"Utterance" is any group of words that convey some meaning, even if it is anaphoric (like "yes" in your example). So all sentences are utterances, but not all utterances are sentences, because they may lack the grammatical structure (subject/predicate) of a sentence.

So, like this:

1: I have a car. (utterance, sentence, proposition)

2: Sorry? (utterance)

1: I have a car. (utterance, sentence, proposition)

2: You have a car? (utterance, sentence)

1: Yes. (utterance)

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