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There is famous sentences by Chomsky ("Colorless green ideas sleep furiously") to show that syntactically sentences can by devoid of meaning, or at least have a very odd or dubious meaning. And it's easy to come up with another examples like this, e.g.:

  • The table watches delicious TV
  • Flowers sing when the effort is black
  • Dignity arrives after the dogs knew

My first question would be: Do these type nonsense sentences of a technical term? In another answer I saw the term Semantic Anomaly/

But more importantly, what about the following examples:

  • The bachelor filed for divorce

Defining a bachelor as an unmarried man, this sentence arguably doesn't make sense. However, is this sentence in the same category (i.e., a Semantic Anomaly) as the examples above or is this a "different kind" of sentence with an odd/wrong/missing meaning?

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  • "Semantic anomaly" means "there's something wrong with the meaning, but it's too complicated to explain". Which in turn suggests that the explainer doesn't understand, either. Meaning is complicated stuff.
    – jlawler
    Feb 14 at 15:47
  • @jlawler I most certainly agree. It's just that I somehow feel that the last example sentence is clearly different compared to the other 3. But then gain, I'm not a linguistic and probably just wrong :).
    – Christian
    Feb 15 at 5:50

1 Answer 1

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Yes, there are indeed different kind of semantically meaningless or anomalous sentences, and those different types can be distinguished in psycholinguistical experiments, e.g., by using the EEG signals N400 and P600.

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  • Oh, that's quite an interesting way to quantify semantic incongruity. So I assume there are no distinct categories that would place "The bachelor filed for divorce" and "Flowers sing when the effort is black" in different categories.
    – Christian
    Feb 14 at 5:51
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    I am not fluent in the categories psycholinguists discovered, but a completely absurd sentence like your second one definitely falls in a different category than the first one where you can detect the inconsistence during the processing of the meaning of the words in the sentence and you have to question your presuppositions. Yet another category are sentences that contain a word that is nonsensical but phonetically close to an expected sense-making word, here the listener assumes an error in hearing and wants to correct it. Feb 14 at 9:05
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    Could it be said that one is semantically nonsensical and one is pragmatically nonsensical or something like that? Considering that one makes no sense at all, (a table can't watch television, and a television can't be delicious), but the other doesn't make sense only because of the context we are given, this way of putting it makes sense to me. Feb 14 at 18:55
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM Yes, this is exactly the question I was asking myself, whether there are already (more or less) well-defined categories. I'm not anything close to a linguist and coming to that issue from a computer science / NLP point of view.
    – Christian
    Feb 15 at 5:46
  • Upon further research, I found [Escher sentences] (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Feb 15 at 9:43

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