A language is a system of shared conventions that allows us to communicate with one another. If we examine lan- guage, we will see that it contains many different kinds of conventions. These conventions govern what we will call linguistic acts, speech acts, and conversational acts. We will discuss linguistic acts first.
We have seen that words have meanings conventionally attached to them. The word “dog” is used conventionally to talk about dogs. Given what our words mean, it would be incorrect to call dogs “airplanes.” Proper names are also conventionally assigned, for Harry Jones could have been named Wilbur Jones. Still, given that his name is not Wilbur, it would be improper to call him Wilbur. Rules like these, which govern meaning and reference, can be called semantic rules.
Other conventions concern the ways words can be put together to form sentences. These are often called syntactic or grammatical rules. Using the three words “John,“ “hit,” and “Harry,” we can formulate sentences with very different meanings, such as “John hit Harry” and “Harry hit John.” We recognize that these sentences have different meanings, because we under- stand the grammar of our language. This grammatical understanding also allows us to see that the sentence “Hit John Harry” has no determinate meaning, even though the individual words do. (Notice that “Hit John, Harry!” does mean something: It is a way of telling Harry to hit John.) Gram-matical rules are important, for they play a part in giving a meaning to com- binations of words, such as sentences.
Some of our grammatical rules play only a small role in this important task of giving meaning to combinations of words. It is bad grammar to say, “If I was you, I wouldn’t do that,” but it is still clear what information the person is trying to convey. What might be called stylistic rules of grammar are of relatively little importance for logic, but grammatical rules that affect the meaning or content of what is said are essential to logical analysis. Grammatical rules of this kind can determine whether we have said one thing rather than another, or perhaps failed to say anything at all and have merely spoken nonsense.