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6.1  States and events

6.1 States and events

Now that our Lexies have the capacity to put words together in novel combinations, they have the full range of the basic features of language. Since we'll be focusing on grammar in the rest of the book, let's change their name to Grammies at this point.

Although these Grammies can put words together in novel combinations to refer to things that combine conceptual features of different pre-existing concepts, they are still limited in one important way. They can only refer to things, that is, point to things with language. They still can say nothing about things. For example, they refer to a particular rock, using a phrase like English the big rock, but they can't say where it is. They can refer to a particular person, using a phrase like English the young man or Clyde or you, but they can't say where the person is or what they are doing. They can use a noun such as rock or person to designate the category of a thing or an adjective such as big or moldy to designate an attribute of a thing but they can't make a claim about a thing belonging to a category or having a property or ask whether a thing belongs to a particular category or has a particular property.

To allow speakers to do these things, modern languages have sentences, which are the topic of this chapter. In this first section of the chapter, we'll look at the kinds of situations in the world, and in the minds of Speakers and Hearers, that sentences designate.

Though I'll be using some English sentences to illustrate these kinds of situations, it's important to make the distinction between the language we use and what that language is about, just as it was with nouns and the categories of things they designate. In this section, our only concern will be the concepts that sentences are about, not the sentences themselves, so this section is not really about English or any other particular language.


An object such as an apple or a tiger has a set of relatively stable properties (or attributes) and a set of relative temporary properties. What might these two kinds of properties be for apples and tigers?
People may notice and talk about relatively temporary or unpredictable properties of things.

Consider the photograph below and what an observer of the scene might see in it. First, there are several things in the scene, the boy, the soccer ball, the book, the grass. Remember from the section on reference in the Meaning chapter that what makes an object such as a soccer ball an object is that it has boundaries around it and a stable set of properties, its shape, its size, its weight, its composition, the pattern of colors on its surface, the way it feels when you press on it. But an object such as a ball can also have some relatively temporary properties, and these are the sorts of things that we might notice about it. For most objects, location is such a property. In the scene in the picture, we might notice that the ball is on the grass, that it is next to the book, that it is to the boy's right. Similarly, we could notice the location of the book or the boy.

book and ball

For people there are many relatively temporary properties of interest in addition to location. The orientation of their body and the parts of their body is one; we might notice not only that the boy in the picture is on the grass but that he is lying, rather than standing or sitting, there. And we might notice that he is resting his chin in his right hand. Facial expression is another temporary property of people that we pay attention to; we might notice that the boy is smiling or that he has a dreamy look on his face.

Even though these aspects of the scene are not permanent properties of the objects in the scene, they are still relatively stable; that is, they continue for some length of time without changing significantly. We call such situations states. The fact that the book is next to the ball, the fact that the boy's left hand is resting on the book, the fact that the boy is lying on the grass are all states. Since the more stable properties of objects are also lasting in this same sense, we can also consider them to be states, though we don't notice or call attention to them as often. So the fact that the soccer ball is black and white might not attract our attention because most soccer balls are. But we might notice permanent properties of the boy that are not properties of all boys, for example, the shape of his nose, his mouth, and his head or the color of his skin and his eyes.

For now the important point to note about states, in addition to their relative stability, is that they are always states of something. That is, when we observe the world, we see the things in the world as being in particular states. Some states are states of just one thing; the fact that the boy is lying down is a property only of the boy. But states may also relate more than one thing; the fact that the ball and the book are next to each other is a fact about two different things. The things that a state is concerned with are called the participants of the state. So the boy is the only participant in the lying state, and the book and the ball are both participants in the next_to state that relates them. States that have more than one participant are called relations.


Of course not all aspects of the world are as stable as the orientation of the boy's body and the relative position of the ball and the book in the photograph. More often what we notice in the world around us is what does not stay the same. For example, look at the photograph below. If we were watching the scene shown in the photograph, we would probably notice the movement of the boy's arm and the ball leaving the boy's hand and traveling toward us. Each of these involves a change of state: the orientation of the boy's arm changes; the location of the ball relative to the boy and relative to us changes. We refer to such situations as events. Events differ from states in involving change, in being unstable rather than stable.


Like states, events have participants, and like states, they may relate more than one participant. So in the picture above, the boy and the ball are participants in the throwing event. Since a throwing event has two participants in it, the person doing the throwing and the thing that is thrown, throwing is an example of a relation. Since states and events are similar in many ways, it will be convenient to have a term that includes both of them; I will call them situations.


Each of the following English expressions is used to designate a state. What's the corresponding expression that designates the change of state leading to that state?
  • wear
  • be standing
  • be asleep
  • be awake

But the line between states and events is not completely clear-cut. In particular, what counts as a state and what counts as an event depends on the observer. Consider a car traveling down a highway. If we are focusing on the movement of the car relative to the ground beneath it or relative to the places alongside the highway, we conceive of what is going on as an event, the event of the car's moving along the highway or passing buildings and signs. But if we are focusing instead on the fact that the car is staying between the middle and the edge of the road, we conceive of what is going on as a state, the state of the car's being on the road or within a particular lane.

There is another way in which the same situation in the world may be viewed as either a state or an event. Given an object in a particular state, we can either focus on that relatively lasting state or on the change of state (that is, event) that resulted in the state. For example, for a door that is open, we can focus on the state of the door being open or on the opening of the door that led to that state. Or for an animal that is dead, we can focus on the state of its being dead or on the dying that led to that state. (For the expressions in the box above, the corresponding change-of-state expressions are put on, stand up, fall asleep or go to sleep, and wake up.)

We can speak of states and events either as situations existing in the world or as ways we have of construing what exists in the world.

The important point here is that a given scene may be conceived of, or construed, differently. This is important because, as we will see, languages offer Speakers different options for representing the different construals they have of situations.

Different degrees of attention to different things in a scene can also lead to different construals. In the scene in the picture above, we could focus exclusively on the ball, ignoring the boy. This would be reflected in a sentence such as the ball is moving fast or the ball has just been thrown. On the other hand, we could focus exclusively on the boy, ignoring the ball. This would be reflected in a sentence such as the boy has just swung his arm or the boy is throwing. Again we'll see that languages have different options for how particular participants in an event can be highlighted or downplayed, depending on the Speaker's construal of the situation.

So far the examples have assumed that a person thinks or talks about a situation during that situation, but we can also think or talk about a situation at other times relative to it. We can talk about a state while it is true (the ball is next to the book), after it was true (the ball was next to the book), or before we assume it will be true (the ball will be next to the book). We can talk about an event while it is going on (the boy is throwing a baseball), after it has happened (the boy threw a baseball), or before we assume it will happen (the boy is going to throw a baseball). I will not have much to say about these time-related differences and how they are reflected in language, but most languages apparently have ways to make these distinctions.

Like us, our Grammies notice states and events in the world. This is because states and events matter to them. The angry expression on the face of another person tells them it's best to avoid that person for awhile. The fact that clouds are forming in the sky leads them to expect rain. The roaring sound they hear tells them there is a tiger nearby. But not all members of the tribe may have noticed a particular significant state or event, and in this case there is reason to be able to communicate it. Just as we saw that it was impractical to have a separate word for every combination of attribute and thing category, it is impractical to have a separate word for every possible state or event. Rather, as with nouns, our Grammies come up with the idea of a separate word for each category of state or event, words such as sit and throw. But each of these state or event categories can have different types of participants. This means that it will often be necessary to combine the state/event words with words that refer to the participants. That is, it will be necessary to have sentences.

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