In 1957, Noam Chomsky published “Syntactic Structures”, in which he provided the following example of a sentence that is both grammatically correct and semantically nonsensical at every level: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Although green cannot be colourless, ideas can neither be green nor sleep, and one cannot sleep furiously, the line possesses a certain poetic charm. As such, in 1985, Stanford University held a competition: participants had to compose, in no more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse, a text that would contain this line and give it actual meaning.
By way of an example, C.M. Street wrote a short piece about planting in the autumn, in which he observed that, “While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Neither he nor Bryan O. Wright won the competition, but the latter’s contribution is beautiful and deserves to be read in full:
Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.
- Bryan O. Wright