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I am studying Math Logic. The author of the book starts with an explanation of a word that linguists refer to as 'indexicality'. He gave the explanation to this as

This means the way the meaning of things we say or write depends upon both the context in which we say or write them and the context in which what we say or write is heard or read.

I don't understand why he uses 'the way' in this explanation. It doesn't seem to fit in and if I remove 'the way' the explanation seems perfectly fine.

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  • I think that "head" should be "heard". That might be causing some of the confusion. May 11 at 16:09
  • I am sorry that was my mistake, it is actually 'heard'. May 11 at 16:11
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    It's really too bad that sentence diagramming is no longer a thing.
    – shoover
    May 11 at 22:09
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    Thank you guys for looking out for me. All three answers were helping me understand the whole paragraph. I got it. May 12 at 7:44
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    There are people who are good at mathematics. There are other people who are good at writing clear, easily parsed, unambiguous sentences. There is a very small overlap between these two groups. May 12 at 16:28

5 Answers 5

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The way the meaning of things is not a phrase in the original: it is a sequence of words from the original, but they do not form a constituent of the sentence at any level.

the way the meaning of things we say or write depends upon both the context in which we say or write them and the context in which what we say or write is heard or read

parses as

the way (in which) [[the meaning of things we say or write] [depends upon both the context in which we say or write them and the context in which what we say or write is heard or read]]

So everything from "the meaning" to the end is an embedded sentence which as a whole specifies "the way". (I have added "in which" for clarity)

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The way in this context could be replaced with the word "how", meaning "in what way or manner". The sentence is quite verbose, which doesn't help; let me trim out some words to make it clearer:

the way [meaning] depends upon [context].'

"Indexicality" describes how words like "yesterday" or "today" change their meaning depending on when or how they're used.

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    +1 for the critique of the original. May 11 at 16:09
  • Does it describe how they change, or does it simply indicate that they change?
    – phoog
    May 12 at 8:21
  • @phoog It describes how they change - the way in which they change.
    – Werrf
    May 12 at 12:01
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This sentence is a bit too complicated to read easily. Let's replace some parts to clarify the structure.

This means ...

These words only introduce the connection to the previous sentence (it's a clarification), let's drop it.

the way the meaning of things we [say or write] depends upon both the context in which we [say or write] them and the context in which what we [say or write] is [heard or read].

All the occurrences of or make it harder to parse as well. Let's reduce it to written text for now:

the way the meaning of things we write depends upon both the context in which we write them and the context in which what we write is read.

Changing the 'both ... and ...' construction into a list:

the meaning of things we write depends upon:

  1. the context in which we write them
  2. the context in which [it] is read.

And similarly,

the meaning of things we say depends upon:

  1. the context in which we say them
  2. the context in which [it] is heard.
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    "The way" is dropped in this analysis halfway through. Reinserting it makes it clear that this is an odd sentence. I can only make the sentence make sense by reinserting "This means" and having "this" refer to "indexicality".
    – ojchase
    May 12 at 21:39
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The distinction might be easier to see with a less complex word than indexicality. Consider instead the following two sentences:

  • “The adjective variable means that something changes.”
  • “The noun variability means ‘the way that something changes’.”

The adjective form is just a simple statement of fact. “The weather is variable.” It changes.

Variability encompasses all possibilities of how something might vary. There is high-variability, low-variability, even zero-variability. Things might vary frequently or only rarely.

Indexicality is like that.

The word yesterday is indexical. It depends on the context it is written and the context it is read. Ditto with words like I and nearby.

Every word has some degree of indexicality — but that degree might be zero, or at least close.

(I tried to come up with a zero-indexicality word, without success. Platinum? No, in the music industry, platinum means something different than it does in the jewelry industry. Jupiter? Nope, mythology versus astronomy. Hey, maybe astronomy...)

Anyway, that is the difference made by omitting “the way”.

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  • "Quality" might be a better word than "way." "Variability" is the quality of being changeable. The way in which something changes could be quickly, slowly, etc.
    – phoog
    May 12 at 8:19
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The problem here is "way." Choosing a better word would allow the sentence to be recast to avoid the horrible mess.

The definition is analogous to saying "relevance is the way something relates to something else." But it isn't. Relevance is the quality of relating to something else or the property. You can describe that property with adjectives, which then describes the way it relates, but in isolation it's just a property.

For example, "hunger has relevance to a decision to eat." If you want to describe the way in which it is relevant, you can say "hunger has strong relevance to a decision to eat."

A better way of stating this definition of "indexicality," therefore, might be

the quality (of something said or written) of having a meaning that depends on the context in which it is said or written or that depends on the context in which it is heard or read.

You write

if I remove 'the way' the explanation seems perfectly fine.

If you simply remove "the way," you get a sentence analogous to "relevance means something relates to something else." This isn't quite correct. Well, it's correct, but it's not exactly a definition of the word; it describes the concept that the word describes but does not indicate that the word attributes that concept to something as a property of that thing.

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