FACTOID # 3: South Carolina has the highest rate of violent crimes and aggravated assaults per capita among US states.
 Home   Encyclopedia   Statistics   States A-Z   Flags   Maps   FAQ   About 


FACTS & STATISTICS    Advanced view

Search encyclopedia, statistics and forums:



(* = Graphable)



Encyclopedia > Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
Approximate X-Bar representation of "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." See Phrase structure rules.
Approximate X-Bar representation of "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." See Phrase structure rules.

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 as an example of a sentence whose grammar is correct but whose meaning is nonsensical. It was used to show inadequacy of the then-popular probabilistic models of grammar, and the need for more structured models. Image File history File links Syntax_tree. ... Image File history File links Syntax_tree. ... X-bar theory is a component of linguistic theory which attempts to identify syntactic features common to all languages. ... Phrase-structure rules were used in early transformational grammar (TGG) to describe a given languages syntax. ... Avram Noam Chomsky (Hebrew :אברם נועם חומסקי Yiddish: אברם נועם כאמסקי) , Ph. ... For the topic in theoretical computer science, see Formal grammar Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. ... Nonsense is an utterance or written text in what appears to be a human language or other symbolic system, that does not in fact carry any identifiable meaning. ...

The full passage says:[1]

  1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.
It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) had ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally "remote" from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not.



It should be noted that the meaninglessness of the sentence has no bearing on Chomsky's point about its occurence, nor does it have much relationship with the larger point he was making about probabilistic analyses.

The sentence can be given an interpretation through polysemy. Both green and colorless have figurative meanings, which still make us able to interpret colorless as "nondescript" and green as "immature" or "environmentally-friendly". So the sentence can be constructed as "nondescript immature ideas have violent nightmares", a phrase not unimaginable in poetry. In particular, the phrase can have legitimate meaning too, if green is understood to mean "newly-formed" and sleep can be used to figuratively express mental or verbal dormancy. An equivalent sentence would be "Newly formed bland ideas are unexpressible in an infuriating way." One meaning could be "unimaginative environmentalist ideas are unpopular". Polysemy (from the Greek πολυσημεία = multiple meaning) is the capacity for a sign to have multiple meanings. ... In linguistics, meaning is the content carried by the words or signs exchanged by people when communicating through language. ...

Writers have attempts to provide the sentence meaning through context, the first of which was written by Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao.[2] A literary competition was held at Stanford University in 1985, in which the contestants were invited to make Chomsky's sentence meaningful using not more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse.[3] An example entry from the competition, from C.M. Street, is: Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 Pinyin: Zhào Yuánrèn; WG: Chao Yüan-jen; Gwoyeu Romatzyh: Jaw Yuanren) (November 3, 1892 - February 25, 1982) was a Chinese phonologist and dialectologist who shaped Gwoyeu Romatzyh. ... Leland Stanford Junior University, commonly known as Stanford University (or simply Stanford), is a private university located approximately 37 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of San Francisco and approximately 20 miles northwest of San José in Stanford, California. ... Year 1985 (MCMLXXXV) was a common year starting on Tuesday (link displays 1985 Gregorian calendar). ...

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Other examples

There is at least one earlier example of such a sentence, and probably many more. The pioneering French syntactician Lucien Tesnière came up with the French sentence "Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite" ("The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail"). For other uses, see Syntax (disambiguation). ... Lucien Tesnière (pronunciation: teNYER) (1893-1954), is one of the most prominent and influential French linguists. ... French (français, langue française) is one of the most important Romance languages, outnumbered in speakers only by Spanish and Portuguese. ...

The game of cadavre exquis (1925) is a method for generating nonsense sentences. It was named after the first sentence generated, Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau (the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine). Exquisite corpse (also known as exquisite cadaver) is a method by which a collection of words or images are collectively assembled, the result being known as the exquisite corpse or cadavre exquis in French. ...

There are doubtlessly earlier examples of such sentences, possibly from the philosophy of language literature, but not necessarily uncontroversial ones, given that the focus has been mostly on borderline cases. For example, followers of logical positivism held that "metaphysical" (i.e. not empirically verifiable) statements are simply meaningless; e.g. Rudolph Carnap wrote an article where he quite literally claimed that almost every sentence from Heidegger was grammatically correct, yet meaningless. Of course, some philosophers who were not logical positivists disagreed with this; at the same time, many who had tried to read Heidegger agreed completely. Logical positivism grew from the discussions of Moritz Schlicks Vienna Circle and Hans Reichenbachs Berlin Circle in the 1920s and 1930s. ... An empirical validation of a hypothesis is required for it to gain acceptance in the scientific community. ... Rudolf Carnap (May 18, 1891 - September 14, 1970) was a German philosopher. ... Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889 – May 26, 1976) (pronounced ) was a highly influential German philosopher. ...

Another example is Groucho Marx's quote, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana" which mixes syntactic confusion with semantic confusion and thus indicates the problems (again) of a purely syntactical approach to parsing natural language without semantic context. Julius Henry Marx, AKA Groucho Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977), was an American comedian, working both with his siblings, the Marx Brothers, and on his own. ...

The philosopher Bertrand Russell used the sentence "Quadruplicity drinks procrastination" to make a similar point; W.V. Quine took issue with him on the grounds that for a sentence to be false is nothing more than for it not to be true; and since quadruplicity doesn't drink anything, the sentence is simply false, not meaningless. Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS, (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970), was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, and pacifist. ... W. V. Quine Willard Van Orman Quine (June 25, 1908 - December 25, 2000) was one of the most influential American philosophers and logicians of the 20th century. ...

Examples like Tesnière's and Chomsky's are the least controversially nonsensical, and Chomsky's example remains by far the most famous.

John Hollander wrote a poem titled "Coiled Alizarine" in his book, The Night Mirror. It ends with Chomsky's sentence. John Hollander (born October 29, 1929) is an American poet and literary critic. ...

Clive James wrote a poem titled "A Line and a Theme from Noam Chomsky" in his book, Other Passports: Poems 1958-1985. It opens with Chomsky's second meaningless sentence and discusses the Vietnam War. Clive James AM (born October 7, 1939 in Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) is an expatriate Australian writer, poet, essayist, critic, and commentator on popular culture. ...

Stephen Fry delivers the following line in an A Bit of Fry and Laurie sketch entitled Language Conversation: "I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.""[4] This article or section cites very few or no references or sources. ... This article is about the television series. ...

Another approach is to create a syntactically-correct, easily parseable sentence using nonsense words; a famous such example is "The gostak distims the doshes". Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky is also famous for using this technique, although in this case for literary purposes. The phrase the gostak distims the doshes was coined in 1923 by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in their book The Meaning of Meaning. ... Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) – believed to be a self-portrait Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (January 27, 1832 – January 14, 1898), better known by the pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican clergyman and photographer. ... The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel Jabberwocky is a poem of nonsense verse written by Lewis Carroll, and found as a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). ...

Other "meaningless utterances" are ones that make sense, are grammatical, but have no reference to the real world, such as "The present Queen of France rides a unicorn." There is no such person as the present Queen of France (France is a Republic and has been so for some time; a monarchist might say that the Duchess of Orléans is the rightful Queen of France, but there is no actual Queen) and there are no such things as unicorns.

Reactions towards the notion of meaninglessness

Many functionalist linguists and cognitive linguists, most notably Dwight Bolinger, George Lakoff, Thomas Givón, William A. Croft and M.A.K. Halliday, have argued against the notion of meaninglessness in language, arguing that the purpose of language is communication; that is, the exchange of meanings. One of their arguments is that, while sentences like 'colorless green ideas sleep furiously' may be possible, they hardly ever appear in naturally occurring language. Functional grammar is the name given to any of a range of functionally-based approaches to the scientific study of language. ... In linguistics and cognitive science, cognitive linguistics (CL) refers to the currently dominant school of linguistics that views the important essence of language as innately based in evolutionarily-developed and speciated faculties, and seeks explanations that advance or fit well into the current understandings of the human mind. ... Dwight Le Merton Bolinger (1907-1992) was an American linguist and Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. ... This article or section does not cite any references or sources. ... Talmy Tom Givón (born 1936) is is a linguist and educator and one of the founders of functionalism in linguistics. ... William Croft is a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico, USA. He is an advocate and inventor of radical construction grammar, which among other things uses box-diagrams to compare and contrast the grammatical features of different natural languages. ... Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday (born 1925) is a linguist who developed an internationally influential grammar model, the systemic functional grammar, originally by studying Chinese. ...


Fernando Pereira of the University of Pennsylvania has fitted a simple statistical model to a corpus of newspaper text, and shown that under this model, "Furiously sleep green ideas colorless" is about 200,000 times less probable than "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously".[5] This article is about the private Ivy League university in Philadelphia. ...

This statistical model defines a similarity metric, whereby sentences which are more like those within a corpus in certain respects are assigned higher values than sentences less alike. Pereira's model does assign an ungrammatical version of the same sentence a lower probability than the syntactically correct form. However, it is not clear that the model assigns every ungrammatical sentence a lower probability than every grammatical sentence. That is, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" may still be statistically more "remote" from English than some ungrammatical sentences.


  1. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton, p. 15. 
  2. ^ Chao, Yuen Ren. Making Sense Out of Nonsense. The Sesquipedalian, vol. VII, no. 32 (June 12, 1997). Retrieved on 2007-03-14.
  3. ^ LINGUIST List 2.457 (September 3, 1991). Retrieved on 2007-03-14.
  4. ^ A Bit of Fry & Laurie (Mandarin, 1990)
  5. ^ Pereira, Fernando (2000), "Formal grammar and information theory: together again?", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 358 (1769): 1239-1253. See also this post at Language Log.

Avram Noam Chomsky (Hebrew :אברם נועם חומסקי Yiddish: אברם נועם כאמסקי) , Ph. ... Syntactic Structures is the name of an influential book by Noam Chomsky first published in 1957. ... Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 Pinyin: Zhào Yuánrèn; WG: Chao Yüan-jen; Gwoyeu Romatzyh: Jaw Yuanren) (November 3, 1892 - February 25, 1982) was a Chinese phonologist and dialectologist who shaped Gwoyeu Romatzyh. ... Year 2007 (MMVII) is the current year, a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar and the AD/CE era. ... is the 73rd day of the year (74th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 2007 (MMVII) is the current year, a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar and the AD/CE era. ... is the 73rd day of the year (74th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Language Log is a popular collaborative language blog maintained by University of Pennsylvania phonetician Mark Liberman. ...

Noam Chomsky
PoliticsCriticismChomskybotHierarchyColorless green ideas sleep furiously
Bibliography (incomplete)
Linguistics: Syntactic Structures (1957) • Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) • The Sound Pattern of English (1968) • The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975) • Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) • The Minimalist Program (1995)
Politics: The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967)American Power and the New MandarinsObjectivity and Liberal ScholarshipThe Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (1983) • Manufacturing Consent (with Edward Herman, 1988) • Necessary Illusions (1989) • Deterring Democracy (1992) • Class Warfare (1996) • Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (2003) • Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2006)
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) • Last Party 2000 (2001) • Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (2002) • Distorted Morality — America's War On Terror? (2003) • Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause (TV, 2003) • The Corporation (2003) • Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land (2004)
This box: view  talk  edit

  Results from FactBites:
Do Colorless Ideas Sleep Furiously? (1230 words)
Things can certainly sleep, and actions can be performed furiously, but "colorless green" is a contradiction, and "sleep furiously" has difficulties associated with it, and assigning either phrase to "idea" does serious violence to our idea of what ideas are, what properties they have, and what they can do.
At the very least, ideas are commonly said to lie dormant, and the use of "sleep" as a general term referring to a state of dormancy is common.
That green ideas sleep is largely intrinsic to the definition of a green idea.
  More results at FactBites »



Share your thoughts, questions and commentary here
Your name
Your comments

Want to know more?
Search encyclopedia, statistics and forums:


Press Releases |  Feeds | Contact
The Wikipedia article included on this page is licensed under the GFDL.
Images may be subject to relevant owners' copyright.
All other elements are (c) copyright NationMaster.com 2003-5. All Rights Reserved.
Usage implies agreement with terms, 1022, m