Here’s a post based on something that a teacher of mine once said. I’ll try to reconstruct the dialectic he proposed. Logicians distinguish predicates and terms. One kind of term is the singular term, which, in Quine’s words, purports to denote a single object. Why are there none in English? For one, English sentences are composed of words, not predicates and terms/singular terms. Further, there are no natural linguistic kinds that could be candidates for singular terms. Noun is out, since, while it would cover “George” it would not cover “the dog”. Noun phrase (NP) (or determiner phrase, depending on your favorite syntactic theory) will cover both of those, but it will also admit “the dogs”, which is plural although possibly a singular term if groups of things are singular. We also have to deal with mass nouns, such as “water,” which are not singular terms (at least, I think not). Determiners like “several” and “some” will also need to be included since those denote single things (if groups are singular). Determiner phrases (DP) are not noun phrases in HPSG though. (Forgive me; that is the syntactic theory I’m most comfortable with.) Similarly, complementizer phrases (CP) aren’t noun phrases either, so prases such as “that my laptop is on” will fall outside the scope of “singular term.” Well, suppose we take all three of those, NP,DP, and CP, as our singular terms. Modulo the worry about plurals flagged above, we haven’t isolated anything that looks like a natural linguistic kind. Supposing one said that whatever acts as a subject for a verb phrase (VP) is a singular term. This just seems false. Besides there being at least prima facie words that seem to denote more than one thing, there is another wrinkle: things like the dummy “it” in “it is snowing” or the existential “there” in “there is frost in my room.” Both are occupying putative subject positions, neither are referential in any sense. I haven’t mentioned pronouns (although HPSG incorporates the “it” and “there” in as pronouns), but similar considerations should apply. There are then no necessary or sufficient conditions for singular termhood in English. This is not to say that a regimented fragment couldn’t have singular terms. Nor is it to say that the semantic representation of a sentence couldn’t have singular terms. Just not English.

I think there may have been further considerations about the syntactic properties of various phrase kinds offered as well, but those completely escape my memory. A similar argument could be run about how there are no predicates in English. What do you think? I’m not sure how convinced I am by it or how convinced I should be. On one level, I think it is right. English (mutatis mutandis for other natural languages) is not constructed out of terms. The syntax of English is not the syntax of FOL in anything resembling a straightforward sense.

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