Beneath the Surface

In Syntactic Structures (1957), to illustrate the difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one, Noam Chomsky offered the expression Colorless green ideas sleep furiously as an example of a grammatical sentence that’s nonsense.

Naturally, some readers took this as a challenge — within months, students at Stanford had set up a competition to show that the expression could be understood as a meaningful sentence. Here’s one of the prizewinning entries:

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.

More entries are here. From David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, 2011.