[M10] Empty content

An empty statement is any statement that is purported to provide information, but in reality it provides no information at all in the relevant conversational context.

In ordinary situations, tautologies or tautological statements are all empty. A tautology is a statement that is true in virtue of the meaning of the logical connectives present in the statement. These connectives are connectives like "not", "and", "or", "if ... then ...", "there is", "every", "none" and the like.

For example, suppose Helen asks whether Francine will come to the party, and Francine replies, "If I come, I will come." This is a tautology as it is necessarily true given the meaning of "if then". But the statement provides no information as to whether Francine will attend the party. So it is indeed an empty statement.

Similarly, the statement that "either it will rain tomorrow, or it will not" is also a tautology. Obviously, if we want to communicate information, we should avoid using tautologies as they provide no useful information about the world. This is not to say that they are completely useless. Tautologies can be useful in logic, and sometimes they serve as reminders about available courses of actions (e.g. "Either we get married, or we don't").

A tautology is a special case of what we might call analytic statements. These are statements that are true solely in virtue of their meaning. Here are some examples:

  • A bachelor is an unmarried man.
  • Anything that is large is not small.
  • Nothing that is running is still.

If a statement is analytic, then its truth depends solely on its meaning and not on any other empirical fact. Note that all tautologies are analytic truths, but not vice versa. A tautolgical sentence is a sentence that is true in virtue of the meaning of the logical words in the sentence. An analytic sentence is a sentence that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words in the sentence. The three examples above are analytic truths but not tautologies. Why? Take the first example, it is true because "bachelor" has the same meaning as "unmarried man", but the word "bachelor" is not a logical word. Unlike words like "and", "or", "if then", "not", it does not describe any logical connections.

If a competent English speaker asks whether Tom is a bachelor, and you answer, "a bachelor is an unmarried man", then your statement can be regarded as an empty statement. Although your statement is necessarily true, it offers no information relevant to the enquiry. On the other hand, if a student is learning English and is wondering what a bachelor is, then your answer does provide some useful information, so in such a case we should not say that the answer is empty.

If we want to communicate information clearly and precisely, then of course we should avoid empty statements. On the other hand, there might be occasions where we want to be evasive and non-commital. In such situations, empty statements might be very useful indeed.

previous tutorial


© 2004-2019 Joe Lau & Jonathan Chan