Syntax & Semantics of Formal Systems

Last Update: 25 March 2010

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Formal Systems

A formal system (also known as: "symbol system", "formal symbol system", "formal language", "formal theory", etc.) consists of:

  1. primitive ("atomic") symbols (or "markers", or "tokens")

  2. recursive rules for forming new (complex, or "molecular") symbols, ultimately from the primitive ones.

  3. a distinguished subset of the wffs

  4. recursive rules for forming "new" wffs from "old" ones, ultimately from the axioms

As an analogy to a formal system, consider a "Transformer" toy made of Lego blocks.

For those of you who don't have (or who weren't themselves) children (probably boys) of a certain elementary-school age,
Transformers are toys that, in one configuration, look like monsters, but can be manipulated so that they turn into something else, often (believe it or not) a truck or other vehicle.

Lego blocks are small building blocks that can be attached to each other to form larger structures.

  1. The Lego blocks can be likened to the primitive symbols.

  2. The instructions for building larger structures from the individual Lego blocks can be likened to the rules for producing wffs from primitive symbols.

    To continue the analogy, suppose that the only wffs are Transformers, either monsters or trucks.
    (This is a bit imaginary: You can't make Transformers out of Lego blocks;
    even if you could, the manipulations to turn them from monsters into trucks would probably cause them to fall apart.)

  3. The instructions for transforming a monster into a truck, or vice versa, can be likened to the rules of inference,
    and if a given monster is likened to an axiom, then the truck that it can be transformed into can be likened to a theorem.

The above analogy falls apart if you look at it too closely, so please don't!


Semiotics (or the theory of signs and symbols) consists of:

  1. Syntax

    1. Syntax is the study of the relations among the symbols of a formal symbol system.

      It can be more generally understood as the study of the relations among the entities of some domain, preferably a domain that can be understood more or less in the terms of a formal system.

    2. Grammatical syntax (or just "grammar", for short) is the study of which sequences (or "strings") of symbols are well formed (according to the recursive rules of grammar).

    3. Proof-theoretical syntax (or "proof theory") is the study of which sequences of wffs are "derivable" from the transformation rules (or "provable via the rules of inference").

    4. Note that my description of a formal system, above, was entirely in terms of syntax.

    5. Syntax does not include the study of such things as "truth", "meaning", "reference", etc.

      • This may be why Bertrand Russell said, "Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true."
        • Russell, Bertrand (1917), Mysticism and Logic, Ch. 4.

  2. Semantics

    1. Semantics is the study of the relations between the symbols of a formal system and what they represent, mean, refer to (etc.) in the "world"
      (where this "world" could be the real world, some possible world, some fictional world, some situation or state of affairs that is part of a world, etc.)

    2. Semantics requires:

      1. a syntactic domain (usually a formal system); call it SYN.

      2. a semantic domain, characterized by an "ontology"; call it SEM.

        • The ontology can be understood as a (syntactic) theory of the semantic domain, in the sense that it specifies:

          • the parts of the semantic domain
          • their relationships (structural [parts and wholes] and inferential [model theory, or a theory of truth and satisfaction])
          • in this sense, SEM is a "model" of SYN!

      3. a "compositional" (i.e., homomorphic, or structure-preserving) semantic interpretation mapping from SYN → SEM

  3. Pragmatics

    1. "Pragmatics" is a grab-bag term used by different people to mean different things.

      The most accurate meaning is probably that pragmatics is the study of everything else that is interesting about formal systems and their interpretations that isn't covered by either syntax or semantics.

      Most people would agree that pragmatics includes the study of the relations among symbol systems, their interpretations, and the cognitive agents who use them.

      It is also often characterized as the study of "contexts" in which symbols are used.

        "Context", however, is another grab-bag term:

        It can mean "social" context, or "situational" context, or "indexical" context
        (e.g., the fact that the sentence "I am hungry" (which contains an "indexical" or "deictic" term: "I")
        means the same thing (in one sense of "means") no matter who says it (i.e., it means that the speaker is hungry),
        yet means different things (in another sense of "means") depending on who says it
        (if you say it, it means that you are hungry, whereas if I say it, it means that I am hungry, which might have different truth values).


  1. Hofstader, Douglas R. (1979), Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books).

  2. Rapaport, William J. (1996), Understanding Understanding: Semantics, Computation, and Cognition [postscript], pre-printed as Technical Report 96-26 [postscript ftp] (Buffalo: SUNY Buffalo Department of Computer Science).

  3. Suber, Peter (2002), "Sample Formal System S"

  4. Van Moer, Ard (2007), "The Intentionality of Formal Systems", Foundations of Science 11(1/2) (March): 81-119.

Other References:

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