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Am I correct in saying that the meanings of the following two phrases are indeed the same? "The sky is the limit. The limit is the sky"?

asked 2015-06-15 10:31:02 -0400

dolfun24 gravatar image

updated 2015-07-03 23:23:35 -0400

The above expression (in its entirety, that is) was coined by comedian Chris Rock and was the subject of a suprisingly intense debate during this morning's ride to work. My friend is very adamant that the two phrases are inherently different and even went as far as to say that "common sense" would tell anyone that the two phrases have distinctly different meanings. Nonetheless, he could not tell me what his source of information was (again, simply attributing this absolute truth to "common sense"). A quick Google search revealed that the source in question was, in fact, comedian Chris Rock. Alas...Although I am appreciative of how the two phrases could be interpreted/understood differently by a given interlocutor, my argument was that they are not inherently (i.e. linguistically) different. When used in the context of Chris Rock's comedic sketch, the phrase was meant to convey that black people's proverbial sky (or limit) is omnipresent, while white people's proverbial sky is, in essence, limitless. I am inclined to believe that we are simply dealing with a poorly crafted metaphor here, but wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something. I figured that a 45-minute debate that essentially pertained to a linguistic question was worthy of soliciting a subjective answer from a professional linguist out there. Thank you for enlightening the novices with your thoughts!

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answered 2015-07-04 05:17:14 -0400

I think you have to stress the word "sky" in both cases to make the two sentences have (technically) the same meaning. Of course, I agree entirely with Dolfun's answer.

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answered 2015-06-16 09:11:13 -0400

usagi5886 gravatar image

If we abstract away from how these phrases are actually used and focus in on just the literal ("referential") meaning, then the meaning of these could be represented as the formal expressions X = Y and Y = X, where 'X' is 'the sky' and 'Y' is 'the limit'. Just like saying 2+2=4 is equivalent to saying 4=2+2, the same thing is true for the two phrases you're asking about. That is, focusing just on literal meaning, "The sky is the limit" describes the same scenario as "The limit is the sky".

However, there's much more to the linguistic meaning than literal meaning. The biggest difference between the two expressions is that one has clearly become an idiom (and developed its own special meaning). The meaning of "the sky is the limit" is more than the sum of its parts. We say the meaning is "non-compositional": it's not true that "the sky" + "the limit" = "you can do whatever you set your heart to". The same is not true for "The limit is the sky". There is no special idiomatic meaning attached to it, and so it's just a plain vanilla statement (with a compositional meaning).

Even if we ignore the difference in idiomatic meaning, the two would still differ is in terms of something called information structure. In "The limit is the sky", the subject is "the limit", hence that is what the sentence is about (referred to as a "topic"). In contrast, in "The sky is the limit", the topic is "the sky". This makes a difference if the sentence is placed in a larger context (a "discourse"). For example, we can say:

1) When you fly your plane, there is a limit you must always watch out for. The limit is the sky.

It's a little more awkward to say it this way.

2) * When you fly your plane, there is a limit you must always watch out for. The sky is the limit.

Generally speaking, if you examine them closely enough, two different linguistic expressions (be they words, phrases, or sentences) will always have some tiny difference in meaning. You just have to look beyond the literal/referential meaning to find it.

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Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply!

dolfun24 gravatar imagedolfun24 ( 2015-06-16 14:44:14 -0400 )edit
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Asked: 2015-06-15 10:31:02 -0400

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Last updated: Jun 16 '15