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Thread: What?: "to believe" vs "to know"

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    Curious Conlanger syntagmatic's Avatar
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    What?: "to believe" vs "to know"

    So I'm proofreading some handouts for one of the syntax professors, and I saw something interesting. I'll spare all the linguistic jargon and just see what you guys think.

    Basically, you have verbs like "know (that)", "regret (that)", and "understand (that)", which indicate that what follows is true. And you have other verbs like "think (that)", "say (that)", and "believe (that)", which indicate that what follows may not necessarily be true.

    It appears that you can't say "what" with the former verbs, but you can say it with the latter... but why? Do you agree with this judgement? Do you think there is some underlying cause stemming from the logic of the statements or something else? And for people who speak other languages here, is this also the case in other languages?

    Example Sentences: *=ungrammatical
    John thinks that Mary bought a book. > What does John think Mary bought?
    John believes that Mary bought a book. > What does John believe Mary bought?
    John said that Mary bought a book. > What did John say Mary bought?
    John knows that Mary bought a book. *> What does John know Mary bought?
    John regrets that he bought a book. *> What does John regret that he bought?
    John understands that Mary hates books. *> What does John understand that Mary hates?
    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
    For—put them side by side—
    The one the other will contain
    With ease—and You—beside—
    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
    The one the other will absorb—
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
    The Brain is just the weight of God—
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
    And they will differ—if they do—
    As Syllable from Sound

    —Emily Dickinson

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    Meae Musae Servus Hephaestus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by syntagmatic View Post
    So I'm proofreading some handouts for one of the syntax professors, and I saw something interesting. I'll spare all the linguistic jargon and just see what you guys think.

    Basically, you have verbs like "know (that)", "regret (that)", and "understand (that)", which indicate that what follows is true. And you have other verbs like "think (that)", "say (that)", and "believe (that)", which indicate that what follows may not necessarily be true.

    It appears that you can't say "what" with the former verbs, but you can say it with the latter... but why? Do you agree with this judgement? Do you think there is some underlying cause stemming from the logic of the statements or something else? And for people who speak other languages here, is this also the case in other languages?

    Example Sentences: *=ungrammatical
    John thinks that Mary bought a book. > What does John think Mary bought?
    John believes that Mary bought a book. > What does John believe Mary bought?
    John said that Mary bought a book. > What did John say Mary bought?
    John knows that Mary bought a book. *> What does John know Mary bought?
    John regrets that he bought a book. *> What does John regret that he bought?
    John understands that Mary hates books. *> What does John understand that Mary hates?
    Something's missing. Your ungrammatical examples look fine to me.
    "Just because it's 2020 doesn't mean everyone has perfect vision."--catchphrase of a fictional comedian in some movie

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    Now we know... Asteroids Champion ACow's Avatar
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    I think I'm having trouble following. So I either fundamentally disagree with the premises, or I'm just misunderstanding, or I'm stupid.

    I do think I'd probably disagree though.

    The first three are largely ok/unambiguous because of semantics. The categories of 'thoughts' and things Mary can buy are culturally separate and the direction of reference is one way: from Johns beliefs to things Mary bought. So as long as we stay out of sci-fi or exploratory exercises where people purchase thoughts (for themselves or others), its nice and clear. Ditto with beliefs and speech.

    So looking now at "What does John know Mary bought?". I can't fault it (i'm trying to not get into writer's stylistic things here and focus on the syntax). It appears syntactically EXACTLY the same as 'What does John think Mary bought?'. If i accept one I accept the other. And semantically the only thing that differs is the apparent certainty of John's mental state.

    The last two are problematic to me only because of semantic ambiguity and the possible flow/direction of reference.

    On John's regrets (i'm not sure if it helps that the writer's preferred non-ambiguous version would be 'What does John regret buying?'), the problem there is the ambiguity between whether he is regretting the action of buying, or whether he bought an object that is the subject of his regret.

    On John's understanding, the ambiguity is whether John understands Mary's state: which would be a nice linear flow of reference through the sentence (John's understanding) -> (Mary's hate). Or whether Mary's hate is specifically referencing back to John's understanding: that is to say, Mary hates the fact that John understands something.

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    No Thank You Blorg's Avatar
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    This type of ambiguity was discussed in The Language Instinct so it might be worth a skim. (I wouldn't recommend the book overall since the author is consistently dishonest and misleading, but it did have some interesting parts.)

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    Curious Conlanger syntagmatic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hephaestus View Post
    Something's missing. Your ungrammatical examples look fine to me.
    Well that's interesting. I realized that in a language without wh-movement, like Chinese, a sentence like "What does John know Mary bought?" is actually impossible to construct; the interpretation will always default to "John knows what Mary bought". For me personally, the "ungrammatical" sentences don't feel entirely out, they just seem a bit weird.
    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
    For—put them side by side—
    The one the other will contain
    With ease—and You—beside—
    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
    The one the other will absorb—
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
    The Brain is just the weight of God—
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
    And they will differ—if they do—
    As Syllable from Sound

    —Emily Dickinson

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    Curious Conlanger syntagmatic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ACow View Post
    I think I'm having trouble following. So I either fundamentally disagree with the premises, or I'm just misunderstanding, or I'm stupid.

    I do think I'd probably disagree though.

    The first three are largely ok/unambiguous because of semantics. The categories of 'thoughts' and things Mary can buy are culturally separate and the direction of reference is one way: from Johns beliefs to things Mary bought. So as long as we stay out of sci-fi or exploratory exercises where people purchase thoughts (for themselves or others), its nice and clear. Ditto with beliefs and speech.

    So looking now at "What does John know Mary bought?". I can't fault it (i'm trying to not get into writer's stylistic things here and focus on the syntax). It appears syntactically EXACTLY the same as 'What does John think Mary bought?'. If i accept one I accept the other. And semantically the only thing that differs is the apparent certainty of John's mental state.

    The last two are problematic to me only because of semantic ambiguity and the possible flow/direction of reference.

    On John's regrets (i'm not sure if it helps that the writer's preferred non-ambiguous version would be 'What does John regret buying?'), the problem there is the ambiguity between whether he is regretting the action of buying, or whether he bought an object that is the subject of his regret.

    On John's understanding, the ambiguity is whether John understands Mary's state: which would be a nice linear flow of reference through the sentence (John's understanding) -> (Mary's hate). Or whether Mary's hate is specifically referencing back to John's understanding: that is to say, Mary hates the fact that John understands something.
    Basically, in each instance, can "what" move out from "Mary bought __" and to the front of the sentence and still sound grammatical. According to the handout, the first three it can, the last three it can't. But it feels a bit weird to me and I'm trying to come up with why that might be the case. The handout for instance just points out that English apparently has this constraint but doesn't go into the possible reasons why.... If it's semantics related, then how is that semantic difference causing the syntactic structure of these verbs and their compliment phrases to be different?

    But I think the "regret" and "understand" examples are a bit more ambiguous and cause a second more acceptable reading to arise, now that I look at it again.

    In the case of "regret", it's not "What does John regret __ that he bought?" as in "What does he regret about having bought something", but rather, "What does John regret that he bought __?" as in "What did John buy that he then regret buying it?"

    In the case of "hate", it's not "What does John understand __ that Mary hates?" as in "What is the thing that John understands and Mary hates the fact that he understands it", but rather, "What does John understand that Mary hates __?" as in "What is the thing that Mary hates and John understands that she hates it?"
    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
    For—put them side by side—
    The one the other will contain
    With ease—and You—beside—
    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
    The one the other will absorb—
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
    The Brain is just the weight of God—
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
    And they will differ—if they do—
    As Syllable from Sound

    —Emily Dickinson

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    Meae Musae Servus Hephaestus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by syntagmatic View Post
    Basically, in each instance, can "what" move out from "Mary bought __" and to the front of the sentence and still sound grammatical. According to the handout, the first three it can, the last three it can't. But it feels a bit weird to me and I'm trying to come up with why that might be the case. The handout for instance just points out that English apparently has this constraint but doesn't go into the possible reasons why.... If it's semantics related, then how is that semantic difference causing the syntactic structure of these verbs and their compliment phrases to be different?
    I'd say the handout is wrong.

    "What does John know Mary bought?"

    Consider a spy movie--or Christmas. John knows Mary bought things, but someone wants to know what John knows Mary bought. Maybe they're hoping he doesn't know about something she bought. Questioning what someone knows about another person's actions is legitimate and grammatically correct.

    "What does John regret that he bought?"

    To me this is a straighforward question. It's isomorphic to "What does John regret buying?"

    "What does John understand that Mary hates?"

    As @ACow observes, this is ambiguous but completely understandable. Ambiguity makes things syntactically challenging, not wrong. But this is grammatically fine, even for the underlying semantic concern I think they're getting at, in that as with the first one, the question of what a person knows or understands is valid.
    "Just because it's 2020 doesn't mean everyone has perfect vision."--catchphrase of a fictional comedian in some movie

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    Now we know... Asteroids Champion ACow's Avatar
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    Just to pull this back so I'm not misrepresenting something simple before going off on tangents about English or language in general...are any of the following sentences deemed syntactically invalid? (i've done my best to remove ambiguity from the original sentences while keeping what I view as similar standard syntax in each for simplicity).

    What book does John think Mary bought?
    What book does John believe Mary bought?
    What book does John say Mary bought?
    What book does John know Mary bought?
    What book does John regret buying? (you can optionally replace "buying" with "having bought" to keep it on the same tense as the previous examples while the only real difference is that the reference is back to John's actions as opposed to Mary's)
    What book does John understand Mary hates?

    My position would be all are perfectly valid in English, that there is little/no important distinction between them, and there is no distinction between the 'class' of verbs used in these instances.

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    Curious Conlanger syntagmatic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hephaestus View Post
    I'd say the handout is wrong.

    "What does John know Mary bought?"

    Consider a spy movie--or Christmas. John knows Mary bought things, but someone wants to know what John knows Mary bought. Maybe they're hoping he doesn't know about something she bought. Questioning what someone knows about another person's actions is legitimate and grammatically correct.

    "What does John regret that he bought?"

    To me this is a straighforward question. It's isomorphic to "What does John regret buying?"

    "What does John understand that Mary hates?"

    As @ACow observes, this is ambiguous but completely understandable. Ambiguity makes things syntactically challenging, not wrong. But this is grammatically fine, even for the underlying semantic concern I think they're getting at, in that as with the first one, the question of what a person knows or understands is valid.
    After reading this and thinking about it a bit more, I agree with you. All of these examples are valid. Actually, a lot of the "ungrammatical" examples provided in our handouts and textbook in the syntax course I took last year were quite questionable, but the professor usually just brushed it off as "ah, you young people". Here some examples I found that are labeled "ungrammatical" as part of a foundation for some of the theories presented in the textbook, but they sound fine to me *shrug*:

    "A translation of a description has appeared of Jack's latest book."
    "This is the man who Jack made the claim that he will invite."
    "Which party did Jack meet Marry after?"
    "Whose office did the inspectors discuss the crime in?"

    Sometimes, I feel like a lot the stuff presented in syntax is just the result of over-scrutinizing and ad hoc foundations. Eventually, you start questioning your own sanity as a native speaker of your language lol. Or perhaps the language is just changing too fast and there's too much speaker variation too maintain coherence...?
    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
    For—put them side by side—
    The one the other will contain
    With ease—and You—beside—
    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
    The one the other will absorb—
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
    The Brain is just the weight of God—
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
    And they will differ—if they do—
    As Syllable from Sound

    —Emily Dickinson

  10. #10
    Curious Conlanger syntagmatic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ACow View Post
    Just to pull this back so I'm not misrepresenting something simple before going off on tangents about English or language in general...are any of the following sentences deemed syntactically invalid? (i've done my best to remove ambiguity from the original sentences while keeping what I view as similar standard syntax in each for simplicity).

    What book does John think Mary bought?
    What book does John believe Mary bought?
    What book does John say Mary bought?
    What book does John know Mary bought?
    What book does John regret buying? (you can optionally replace "buying" with "having bought" to keep it on the same tense as the previous examples while the only real difference is that the reference is back to John's actions as opposed to Mary's)
    What book does John understand Mary hates?

    My position would be all are perfectly valid in English, that there is little/no important distinction between them, and there is no distinction between the 'class' of verbs used in these instances.
    For the "regrets" sentence, I guess it should be "What book does John regret (that) he bought?" but yeah, they all sound perfectly valid to me too. I have no idea where this idea in the handout came from. I'm going to ask the professor about this when I get a chance; maybe he can point me to a resource or provide me with more insight into the issue.
    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
    For—put them side by side—
    The one the other will contain
    With ease—and You—beside—
    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
    The one the other will absorb—
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
    The Brain is just the weight of God—
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
    And they will differ—if they do—
    As Syllable from Sound

    —Emily Dickinson

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