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I have this sentence:

the president thought that sally is a sandwich.

It's supposed to be grammatically correct. But isn't that mean that this sentence is also grammatically correct:

sally is a sandwich

Can you say that in English?

president is a tool (same structure)

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    You need a capital letter on Sally, as it is a person's name. However president is not a person's name.
    – Peter
    May 7 at 5:16
  • That's the trick. "sally" here is not a person's name in my opinion... And maybe we can divide it like this: The president thought - that sally is a sandwhich . Same as: The president thought - that president is a tool . ?
    – Dan798
    May 7 at 5:21
  • That's the point. Did you look up the meaning of "tool"? It has a slang meaning when it is attached to a person's name or title. Is this why you are asking if "Sally is a sandwich" grammatical? Unless a "sally" is ALSO the name of a type of sandwich, the sentence itself is nonsense.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7 at 6:53
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    If "sally" is not a person's name then the first sentence is bad grammar as well as nonsense. If "sally" is a person's name then it is good grammar, but still nonsense. Otherwise The president thought "That sally is nonsense." or The president thought "That president is a tool." are possible, but not what you wrote in the question.
    – Peter
    May 7 at 7:28
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    It sounds from your comments that your intended meaning is The president thought that the word "sally" meant a sandwich. Is that what you mean? Because your sentence does not mean that without a context to force that reading.
    – Colin Fine
    May 7 at 20:23

5 Answers 5

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Sally is a sandwich.

Correct grammar. Subject "Sally", verb "is", complement "a sandwich". Sally is a name and must have a capital letter.

The president is a tool.

Correct grammar. "President" (in this sense) needs a determiner, such as "the". "The" is the first word of a sentence and the first word of a sentence must have a capital letter.

And so "The president thought that Sally is a sandwich." is correct grammar. The word "that" is a conjunction, and it forms the "think that..." pattern for reported thought. Sally is a name and must have a capital letter.

Advice: Don't use meaningless sentences like "Sally is a sandwich". Instead use: "Sally is a woman" or "The President is a woman." Language is about communication and the meaning of a sentence can guide the grammar, just as grammar gives a sentence meaning; so meaningless sentences like "Sally is a sandwich" can confuse you. Here it is confusing because sandwiches don't have names like "Sally".

If these examples came from a book, and they contain "sally" without capital letters, then the book should be discarded. It contains mistakes in basic English spelling and is probably useless for learning English. There is a rare word "sally", it means to make a sudden counterattack from a besieged fortress, it would be ungrammatical here.

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  • sally is for sure without a capital letter. I think the correct analysis might be: the president think - that sally is a sandwich . Meaning the "that" is the determiner here. Is that possible?
    – Dan798
    May 7 at 7:01
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    Did you write these sentences yourself? Did they come from a book? What is the name of the book?
    – James K
    May 7 at 7:06
  • The word "that" is a conjunction. It is part of the "think that" or "say that" formation for reported thought or reported speech.
    – James K
    May 7 at 7:10
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    "desk" is not a name, and in this context would require an article or determiner, for example "The president thought her desk is a sandwich." But stop talking about desks being sandwiches It is silly and confusing. Instead please answer my question Did you write these sentences yourself? Did they come from a book? What is the name of the book?
    – James K
    May 7 at 12:07
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    @JamesK despite my belief that it is perfectly possible to utter nonsense in perfectly grammatical form (indeed it is an art form for politicians), I cannot agree more that discussing the grammar of nonsense just confuses everyone. May 7 at 13:40
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I do not view punctuation and capitalization as technically part of grammar because they do not even exist in the spoken language. They are conventions of formal writing specified in style guides. According to those conventions, the spelling “sally” is an error if it is intended as a proper name. However, I believe that, if “sally” is intended as a proper name, then

The president thinks sally is a sandwich

is grammatical because it follows the same structure as

The president thinks sally is a senator

which second sentence, if spoken aloud, would be considered grammatical by anyone familiar with English grammar. Indeed, the “sandwich” sentence would not raise an eyebrow in certain contexts, e.g.,

The president has become psychotic and is so far around the bend that now thinks Sally, who has been his wife for thirty-six years, is a sandwich.Sally’s bite marks have needed medical treatment.

If “sally” is not intended as a proper name, the indicated sentence is not grammatical.

Of course, not everyone agrees that capitalization and punctuation are just conventions of formal writing and thus not technically part of grammar. In that case, spelling the proper name “Sally” as “sally” is a gross violation of English grammar.

Grammatical examples that, absent context, assert nonsense are bad examples because it is hard to separate content from form. Nevertheless, grammar is about form rather than content.

The A thinks that X is a P

is a grammatical form.

All this proves is the rather obvious truth that one can speak nonsense grammatically and sense non-grammatically. Grammar and sense are different realms.

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  • Isn't it like saying: the president thought - that desk is a sandwhich ? –
    – Dan798
    May 7 at 11:51
  • Yes, it is. I have already stated my view that grammar is about form rather than content. But it is also my view that trying to discuss grammar through examples that are nonsensical just obscures everything. May 7 at 13:44
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When we interpret a sentence, we do so in terms of the meanings of the word in order to understand the sentence as a whole.

So why don't we parse this as "The president thought: that sally is a sandwich." In which "that" functions as a determiner for the common noun "sally". That is, with a little punctuation, a grammatically correct expression.

The reason is that there is a categorical difference between the concrete "sandwich" and the abstract "sally". A sally is sudden attack from a besieged position. It is categorically different from a bread-and-filling snack.

So it is practically and pragmatically impossible to parse "that" as a determiner.

Therefore "that" must be a conjunction, and part of the common "think that" formation

And furthermore "sally" must be a misspelling of "Sally".

The possibility of different parsing depending on the meanings of the sentence is illustrated by the pair:

Time flies like an arrow.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Apparently the same structure, but in the first "flies" is a verb and "like" is a preposition. In the second "flies" is a noun and "like" is a verb. And there is no ambiguity!

In just the same way

the president thinks that sally is a sandwich

Must be interpreted in one way: That is a conjunction, sally is a name and the capitalisation is wrong.

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To add to what James K is saying, this particular sentence is ungrammatical; it should actually be:

The president thought Sally was a sandwich.

Alternatively,

The president thinks Sally is a sandwich.

Basically, the grammatical tense used should be consistent throughout the sentence.

And yes, these sentences are grammatical, even though they make no sense. Being meaningful is a quality that is separate from being grammatical; a sentence need only follow the rules of the language to be grammatical.

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  • thats not the point. my point is maybe the "that" can be viewed as determiner and then isnt that gramattical?
    – Dan798
    May 7 at 11:58
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There’s a famous book by Oliver Sacks: “The man who believed his wife was a hat”. The author is a psychologist who has treated many extreme cases of psychosis. And yes, the man in question did indeed believe his wife was a hat. Grammatically perfectly fine.

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    I think he was a neurologist ad the copy on my shelf is titled "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" although it may have had other titles in other countries.
    – mdewey
    May 8 at 12:29
  • @mdewey that's the title I'm most familiar with. The man couldn't understand if he was looking at a human face or not. It's quite different from someone actually saying "My wife is a hat." even if it's grammatical. Chomsky's infamous line "Colourless green clouds sleep furiously" demonstrates that logic and grammaticality can part company easily.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 8 at 15:28

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