Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

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"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 as an example of a sentence with correct grammar (logical form) but semantics that are nonsensical. The sentence therefore has no understandable meaning. An example of a category mistake, it was used to show inadequacy of the then-popular probabilistic models of grammar, and the need for more structured models.



The full passage says:

It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has 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 grammatical.[1]

While the meaninglessness of the sentence is often considered fundamental to Chomsky's point, Chomsky was relying upon this only to ensure that the sentences had never been spoken before. Thus, even if one were to prescribe a likely and reasonable meaning to the sentence, the grammaticality of the sentence is concrete despite being the first time a person had ever heard that phrase, or those words in such a combination. This was also used as a counter-example to the idea that the human speech engine was based upon a Markov Chain, and simple statistics of words following others.[citation needed]

Attempts at meaningful interpretations

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". So the sentence can be construed as "nondescript immature ideas have violent nightmares", a phrase with less oblique semantics. 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 inexpressible in an infuriating way."

Writers have attempted 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:

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