To refer to x, must x exist at least as a concept? Is there any sense in which a nonsense term can refer to anything?

For example,

If "Round square" doesn't refer to anything, is "I love a round square" pure nonsense?

But, if "round square" refers to something, at least a concept, does "I love a round square" make sense?

  • 4
    While this is a question about semantics (so I'm not going to close it as off-topic), I think you might get a better answer from philosophers than from linguists.
    – Draconis
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 0:52
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    Are you using "say of something" as a technical term (and what does it mean). What do you mean by "indicate"? Does "indicate" mean the same thing as "refer to" or "describe"? What is the referent of "it" in your first sentence? What sense of "use" do you have in mind, for example I can "use" a word "clafmeloby" in uttering a sentence "I clafmeloby the wabe", does that count?
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 5:49
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    Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 9:14
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    If you google "The present king of France is bald" you will probably come across the philosophical dicussion about this. I think it also includes unicorns. See also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definite_description Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 9:16

3 Answers 3


No. Just because you can say a thing, does not imply the thing has an identifiable referent. Noam Chomsky famously argued this with the example sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously", which is grammatically correct, despite no one on Earth including himself being able to tell you how something can be simultaneously green and colorless, what it even means for an idea to be colored in the first place, or how an immaterial concept like "idea" can sleep, let alone sleep "furiously". No part of the sentence comes attached to an identifiable concept - yet, it is a syntactically valid sentence, all the same.

The existence of the phrase "I love a round square" does not prove that round squares are a thing, only that that phrase itself does not violate the syntactic constraints of English.

  • And I would add in passing: round square is an oxymoron. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 15:30
  • Round square is an international association of schools, so I love round square is a totally correct sentence ;)
    – Dakkaron
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 18:09

"Round square" combines two meaningful terms, but the terms contradict each other. The phrase refers to a set of points all of which both are and are not equidistant from a center point.

Because the terms in the phrase "round square" contradict each other, the combined term "round square" cannot refer to anything.

So, the sentence "I love round square," is nonsensical. It's comparable to the "sentence" "I love %&**(*."

  • I'd argue that the comparison isn't correct, because round square is completely acceptable on a language level. It's just a logical contradiction in the content. I love %&**(* on the other hand is incorrect on a language level, since %&**(* is (at the current moment) no word with any meaning. And actually, I love round squares is a meaningful sentence. The meaning could be demonstrated easily by adding one word: I ONLY love round squares, which then would equate to I love nothing.
    – Dakkaron
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 10:03
  • @Dakkaron There is of course the added complication that “%&**(*” will generally be understood to be a censored word, based on comic strip usage. While that won’t give the entity any specific meaning, it will tell the reader that there is a word there, and it’s one considered to be rude. It’s essentially equivalent to, “I love [expletive]”, which is ungrammatical at face value (expletive as a count noun requires determining), but completely understandable nonetheless. Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 12:03
  • Yes, "I love round square," is almost correct syntactically. The sentence "I love round squares" would be entirely correct syntactically, but so is Chomsky's famous sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," whose terms exclude each other semantically. Language isn't just syntax; it encompasses semantics (among other things) as well. A sentence whose object can't refer to anything is not a meaningful sentence. What is more, "I only love round squares" cannot equate with "I love nothing." The term "nothing" has a meaning. The term "round square" does not. Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 22:48

I think we have to differentiate here between meaning/reference and logical contradictions.

Both round and square are terms that have a meaning because they reference a concept. A random string of characters has no meaning, because it doesn't reference a concept.

round square consists of meaningful words that form a logical contradiction. It together references something that doesn't exist. It's essentially the same as the false truth. The contradiction isn't really on a language-level but instead in the content of the statement and here it's equivalent to any incorrect statement.

But since language constantly evolves and new meanings are created every day, round square actually references something: It's an international network of schools.

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