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Because semioticians know better. “One does not think words, one thinks only phrases.” — Paul Valéry As the French semioticians knew, the smallest linguistic unit is the phrase, not the word. Words alone are representations, but they don’t have meaning per se. Meaning requires syntax and context. Everybody knows what the word “house” represents. But there is no meaning in “house”. Words are just elements and a language is a composition of elements. Only in a phrase, you’ll find both, elements and their composition. Phrases can be as small as one word. “Hello!”, is a phrase if it’s in the right context. Phrases are smaller than sentences. “Hello! I have been waiting for you since 8 in the morning”, is a sentence. Remember, context is everything in any language. Let me give you another context. Imagine a traveler that, after a big adventure, comes back home. S/he opens the door and says “Home!”. There, the word “home” is more than a representation, it has meaning. It’s a phrase. We write by phrases because writing is about meanings not about representations. Even when we do a simple list as a reminder, we do a list of phrases, not just words. “Coffee, cleaning, Tom, keys”, are phrases. Only you know if “Tom” means “call him”, “meet him”, or “email him”. Another context. You have a contact form on a given website or app. You follow the text fields, buttons, and at the end, on a button or similar, you find the word “Submit”. “Submit” has meaning only in the context of the contact form. In fact, all the words in the contact form work like a phrase. They are not loose words. “Contact”, “Name”, “Email”, “Send”, in the right visual context form a phrase. After a phrase, you can start a dialog. After you push or click “Send”, the answer is “Thank you”. We can do a much better contact form, but let’s see some important distinctions first. Unfortunately, the English translators use the word “sentence” instead of “phrase”, when translating from French. So, when you read Roland Barthes, you must consider that he is referring to phrases in quotes like this: As everyone knows, linguistics stops at the phrase; it is the last unit that falls within its scope; for if the phrase — being an order and not a sequence — is not reducible to the sum of its words, and constitutes therefore an original unit, an enunciation, on the other hand, is nothing but the succession of the phrases it contains. From the point of view of linguistics, there is nothing in discourse that is not matched in the phrase. “The phrase,” writes Martinet, “is the smallest segment that is perfectly and systematically representative of discourse.” — Roland Barthes, An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative In this and the other quotes from the French in this article, I have substituted “sentence” by “phrase”, to be more accurate with the originals. This is important because we use to think that writing is based on words, that our raw material is words: Words are the model, words are the tools, words are the boards, words are the nails. — Richard Rhodes But when I read Roland Barthes and the distinction and different levels of function for words, » Read More
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