There is something particularly elegant about a well-phrased sentence. For some reason, we recoil when a sentence is awkward or lopsided, even though it may say the same thing as its more well-dressed and often smaller sibling. Please enjoy these notes. They aim to explore how it is we are able to say, write and understand anything at all.

Syntax  I  Declarations  I  Projections  I  Reasoning  I  Comprehension  I  Form & Thought  I  Intention  I  References  I  Comments 


Select the image above for details on a  Literacy Bug  presentation on sentence structure.

Select the image above for details on a Literacy Bug presentation on sentence structure.

TLP 3.141: A proposition [(e.g. a sentence)] is not a blend of words. -- (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate. 

“And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.” (Burgess, 1968, Enderby Outside).

TLP 4.03: A proposition must use old expressions to communicate a new sense. 

TLP 3.34: A proposition possesses essential and accidental features. Accidental features are those that result from the particular way in which the propositional sign is produced. Essential features are those without which the proposition could not express its sense. 

PI 496: Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfill its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.

“When human beings use [words] to communicate with one another, stringing them together into sequences, patterns of use emerge and become consolidated into grammatical constructions.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 5)

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Declarative Sentences (or propositions)

TLP 4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality. A proposition is a picture of reality as we imagine it. 

TLP 4.03 A proposition communicates a situation to us, and so it must be essentially connected with the situation. And the connexion is precisely that it is a logical picture. 

TLP 4.031: In a proposition a situation is, as it were, constructed by way of experiment. Instead of, ‘This proposition has such and such a sense’, we can simply say, ‘This proposition represents such and such a situation.’

“We may never fly in a hot-air balloon, win a race with a hare, or dance with a prince until midnight, but through stories in books we can learn what it feels like.” (Wolf, 2008, p 86)

“They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives ..., and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject or refine.” (Fish, 2011, pg. 2)

CV: Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself.

Z 245: I understand the picture exactly, I could model it in clay. -- I understand this description exactly, I could make a drawing from it. In many cases we might set it up as a criterion of understanding, that one had to be able to represent the sense of a sentence in a drawing ( I am thinking on an officially instituted test of understanding). How is one examined in map-reading, for example?

PI 280: Someone paints a picture in order to show how he imagines a theatre scene. And now I say: “This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind: for him it is the picture of his image.

“The point, made implicitly ... is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.” (Fish, 2011, pg 1)

“When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wordcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” (Quoting Dillard, Fish, 2011, pg 3)

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Projecting/decoding sentences

TLP 3.1: In a proposition a thought finds an expression that can be perceived by the senses.

TLP 3.11: We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc) as a projection of a possible situation. The method of projection is to think of the sense of the proposition.

TLP 3.13: A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what is projected. Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is. A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it. (‘The content of a proposition’ means the content of a proposition that has sense.) A proposition contains the form, but not the content, of its sense.

Z 74: A sentence is given me in code together with the key. Then of course in one way everything required for understanding the sentence has been given me. And yet I should answer the question “Do you understand this sentence?” : No, not yet; I must first decode it. And only when e..g. I had translated it into English would I say “Now I understand it.”

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Reasoning (does it makes sense, but is it true?)

PG 85: Symbols appear to be of their nature unsatisfied. A proposition seems to demand that reality be compared with it. “A proposition like a ruler laid against reality.” 

A truth table from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

TLP 2.21: A picture agrees with reality or fails to agree; it is correct or incorrect, true or false.

TLP 2.22: What a picture represents it represents independently of its truth or falsity, by means of its pictorial form.

TLP 4.31: We can represent truth-possibilities by schemata of the following kind (‘T’ means ‘true’, ‘F’ means false; the rows of ‘T’s’ and ‘F’s’ under the row of elementary propositions symbolise their truth-possibilities in a way that can be easily understood)

TLP 5.13: When the truth of one proposition follows from the truth of others, we can see this from the structure of the propositions. 

OC 5: Whether a proposition can turn out false after all depends on what I make count as determinants for that proposition. 

OC 485: We can also imagine a case where someone goes through a list of propositions and as he does so keeps asking “Do I know that or do I only believe it?” He wants to check the certainty of each individual proposition. It might be a question of making a statement as a witness before a court.

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PG 1: How can one talk about “understanding” and “not understanding” a proposition? Surely it’s not a proposition until it’s understood?

PG (pg 39): Doesn’t understanding start with a proposition, with a whole proposition? Can you understand half a proposition?

Z 73: Some sentences have to be read several times to be understood as sentences.

Z 74: If now we raise the question “At what moment of translating do I understand the sentence?”, we shall get a glimpse into the nature of what is called “understanding”. 

Z 90: What do I know of what goes on within someone who is reading a sentence attentively? And can he describe it to me afterwards, and, if he does describe something, will it be the characteristic process of attention?

PI 533: How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey the unambiguously.

PG 104: “A proposition isn’t a mere series of sounds, it is something more.” Don’t I see a sentence as part of a system of consequences.

PG 70: “What happens when a new proposition is taken into the language: what is the criterion for its being a proposition?” 

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Sentences set within meaningful contexts

"If you understand anything in language, you must understand what the dialogue is, and you must see how understanding grows as the dialogue grow." (Rhees, 2006, 7)

"You might know the technique - you might know how to use the expressions but would not understand it (or them) unless you could know how it was connected with the [discussion]." (Rhees, 2006, 6 - 7).

"The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. (Monk, 1999)

 "A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings." (Monk, 1999)

OC 410: Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it. 

OC 225: What I hold fast to is not one proposition but a nest of propositions.

“For we want to ask, ‘What would be missing if you did not experience the meaning of a [proposition]?’ (PI, 214).” (Minar, 2010, pg 186)

“He or she would have to come to this; he or she lacks the thought, experience and imagination to anticipate the meaning in the way envisioned.” (Minar, 2010, pg 197)

"People have not had the same opportunity to learn unless they have equivalent opportunities to "play the game" connected to the texts they are reading." (Gee, 2003, pg 44)

A discipline in form is a discipline in thought - sentence forms

“A discipline in form is a discipline in thought.” (Fish, 2011, pg 48)

“When it comes to formulating a proposition, form comes first; forms are generative not of specific meanings, but of the very possibility of meaning.” (Fish, 2011, pg 27)

“Well, my bottom line can be summarised into two statements: (1) a sentence is an organisation of items of the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationship.” (Fish, 2011, pg 16)

“Look around the room you are in and pick out four or five items. Then add a verb or a modal auxiliary (would, should, could, must, may might, shall, can will). Finally, make a sentence out of what you have.” (Fish, 2011, pg 16)

“There is the person or thing performing an action, there is the action being performed, and there is the recipient or object of the action. That’s the basic logical structure of many sentences: X does Y to Z.” (Fish, 2011, pg 18)

“The same thing will happen if you give yourself the assignment of writing a sentence in which three or four time zones - past perfect, past, present, future - are structured into an account of related action.” (Fish, 2011, pg 30)

“[Sentences] promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organisation of the world. That is what language does: organise the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated. If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can by extrapolation and expansion, write anything. (Fish, 2011, pg 7 - 8)

“Part of what it is to command language is to incorporate into it, case by case, the unforeseen and the interesting. That is the beauty and the importance of looking at how to arrange it.” (Floyd, 2010, pg 337)

“It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense - the world is one thing, words another - but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders. Think about what you do when you revise a sentence: You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the ‘reality’ offered to your readers changes.” (Fish, 2011, pg 37)

“When we write a sentence, we create a world, which is not the world, but the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment.” (Fish, 2011, pg 39)

“Sentence writers are not copyists; they are selectors.” (Fish, 2011, pg 38)

“If you learn what it is that goes into making of a memorable sentence - what skills of coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration ... are in play - you will also be learning how to take the appreciative measure of such sentences.” (Fish. 2011, pg 8 - 9)

“The subordinating style orders its components in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior to or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importances).” (Fish, 2011, pg 45 - 46)

“Colons, commas, periods, and capital letters segment a reality that is continuous and made up of discrete, intensely realised moments.”  (Fish, 2011, pg 69 - 70)

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Linguistic turns as turns of thought

“The truth is that forms are the engines of creativity. ‘Our templates,’ says Graff and Birkenstein, ‘have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing they might not otherwise make or even know they should make .... When we ask students to write sentences using the form “at this point you probably object that” -- they invariably comes up with objections - content - that had never occurred to them and they would never have written on their own.’” (Fish, 2011, pg 30)

“These sentence starters (see chart to the right) later became guidelines for students as they meet in writing groups to comment upon each other’s writing.” (Olson, 2007, p 280)

“There is no limit to the forms you can practice in this way: ‘Even though’, ‘Were I to’, ‘Notwithstanding that,’ ‘Depending whether,’ ‘In the event that.’” (Fish, 2011, pg 31 - 32)

“Give yourself the assignment of contemplating a sentence that begins ‘Had I.’” (Fish, 2011, pg 31)

PI II, vi: The if-feeling would be compared with the special ‘feeling’ which a musical phrase give us. (One sometimes describes such a feeling by saying “Here it is as if a conclusion were being drawn”, or “I should like to say ‘hence ...’”, or “Here I should always like to make a gesture--” and then makes it).

Z 188: I read each word with the feeling appropriate to it. The word ‘but’ e.g. with the but-feeling - and so on.” - and even it that is true - what does it really signify? What is the logic of the concept ‘but-feeling’? -- It certainly isn’t a feeling just because I call it “a feeling”.

Z 42: And how does [a child] learn to use the expression “I was just on the point of throwing then”? And how do we tell that he was then really in that state of mind then which I call “being on the point of”?

PI 545: But when one says “I hope he’ll come” -- doesn’t the feeling give the word “hope” its meaning? (And what about the sentence “I do not hope for this coming any longer”?) The feeling does perhaps give the word “hope” its special ring; that is, it is expressed in that ring. -- If the feeling gives the word its meaning, then here “meaning” means point. But why is the feeling the point? Is hope a feeling? (Characteristic marks.)

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Sentences and intention

“When a child learns the conventional uses of [words], what she is learning are the ways her forebears in the culture found it useful to share and manipulate the attention of others in the past. And because the people of a culture, as they move through historical time, evolve many and varied purposes for manipulating one another’s attention (because they need to do this in many different types of discourse situations), today’s child is faced with a whole panoply of [words] and constructions that embody many different attentional construals of any given situation.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 13)

"To a particular person, the meaning of an object, event, or sentence is what that person can do with the object, event, or sentence." (Glenberg 1997: p. 3) 

"Reading and writing in any domain … are not just ways of decoding print, they are also caught up with and in social practices." (Gee, 2003, pg 28-29)

PI 23: How many kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion, question, and command? -- there are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbol”, “words”, “sentences”. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten ... Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form. Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:

  • Giving orders, and obeying them --
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --
  • Constructing an objection from a description (a drawing) --
  • Reporting an event --
  • Speculating about an event --  
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis --
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams --
  • Making up a story; and reading it --
  • Play-acting --
  • Singing catches --
  • Guessing riddles --
  • Making a joke, telling it --
  • Solving a problem of practical arithmetic --
  • Translating from one language into another --
  • Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

-- It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of tools in language and of the ways they are used, multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language.

“Phrases like ‘Once, long ago,’ and words like ‘elfin’ aren’t part of typical discourse. However, they are integral part of the language of books ... It not only vocabulary growth that is special about the language of story and books. Equally important is the syntax or grammatical structure found here, which is largely absent form the stuff of everyday speech ... Another feature of the language of books involves a beginning understanding of what might be called ‘literary devices,’ such as figurative language, particularly metaphor and simile.” (Wolf, 2008, p 87 - 89)

“Effective readers must be able to apply different knowledge, reading, and reasoning processes to different types of content, from fiction to history and science, to news accounts and user manuals. They must assess sources of information for relevance, reliability, impartiality, and completeness. And they must connect information across multiple sources.” (Goldman, 2012, pg. 89)

“When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages … Here the term ‘language game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life …” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)

“Following a rule, making a report, giving an order, and so on, are customs, uses, practices or institutions. They presuppose a human society, and our form of life.” (Phillips, 1977, p 36)

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References  (back to top)

  • Burgess, A. (1968) Enderby outside. London: Heinemann
  • Fish, S. (2011). How to write a sentence: and how to read one. New York: HaperCollins Publishers.
  • Floyd, J. (2010). On being surprised: Wittgenstein on aspect-perception, logic and mathematics. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 314 - 337). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to Learn: A language-based perspective on assessment. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(1), 27–46. doi:10.1080/09695940301696
  • Glenberg, A. M. (1997). What is memory for? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 1 – 55.
  • Goldman, S. R. (2012). Adolescent literacy: learning and understanding content. The Future of Children, 22(2), 89–116. Retrieved from
  • Minar, E. (2010). The philosophical significance of meaning-blindness. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 183 - 203). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Monk, R. (1999). Wittgenstein's Forgotten Lesson. In Propsect Magazine. 29 July 1999. Retrieved from on 22 November 2013.

  • Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. Retrieved from <Go to ISI>://WOS:000244438000003
  • Rhees, R. (2006). Wittgenstein and the possibility of discourse (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

  • Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press.
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.
  • _____________. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • _____________  (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Edited by Rush Rhees. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________   (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • _____________ (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.