The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

The truth value of keeping promises

What does it mean when someone promises you something?

“I promise to give you $10.”

In our everyday usage of this sentence, the person who utters this statement obliges himself to give the listener $10, is it not? However, if I utter this sentence and didn’t give you $10, is that sentence considered to be a false statement?

Most people would say “yes,” but in the study of semantics it is not that clear-cut.

What is the meaning of the sentence “I promise,”? To pare down its meaning, that sentence means “I am making a statement about agreeing to do something.” The most important and vital part about promises is that it has to be uttered. A promise is useless if the promiser doesn’t say it to the promisee. While a person can promise himself about something regarding other people (“I promise to protect her from harm.”), the promise is not valid to other people unless they hear it from the promiser (“Why’re you trying to stop me from crossing the road!?” “Oh I made a promise to protect you from harm.” “Get away from me you creep!”).

In semantics, this is known as a performative speech act, whereby a statement is true by virtue of being uttered.

Therefore, when I say, “I promise to give you $10,” did I make a promise to give you $10? Yes I did. Am I going to give you $10? I can’t afford to, I’m poor. But there is no way to look at the sentence I uttered earlier (“I promise to give you $10”) and say that that sentence is not true, because I did promise. I just did not keep my promise.

Tense matters when it comes to performative speech acts. When you change that example sentence to the past tense, “I promised to give you $!0,” that sentence can be false, because if you made no such promise prior, it is false. The future tense is slightly trickier — “I will promise to give you $10.” Is that itself a promise to exact a promise in the future, since “will” seems to have similar ‘promising’ functions, although slightly weaker than “promise” itself? Or is it a lot simpler, where its truth value is determined by whether the described action is carried out in the future?

Other fun examples to think about include:

  • “I now pronounce you man and wife.” – Are the couple not man and wife prior to the speech act, as they go through the wedding?
  • “You are under arrest.” – Was the person prior to the sentence not under arrest, even though he might be cuffed?
  • “I sentence you to death.” – Was the convict not sentenced to death prior to the utterance of the verdict, even though the jury had already decided?

My Milo is ‘kosong’ out of necessity

miloI am a huge fan of Milo, this chocolate malt drink that I have been drinking since I was a kid. Back home, the way it is usually made is to put heaping spoonfuls of the chocolate powder, add hot water and then a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk. Not with regular milk, not with creamer, just condensed milk.

These days, I’ve been having to drink my Milo ‘kosong’, or ’empty’ in Malay. What that means is simply a cup of Milo without any condensed milk; just Milo powder and hot water. This variant is preferred by those who like their Milo less sweet, since there is a measure of sugar in the Milo chocolate powder mix already.

Milo has been my regular substitute for slabs of chocolate, since it is rather chocolate-tasting and we all know chocolate makes people feel better about themselves. Heaven knows I need plenty of feel-goodness, to help the days pass by.


I had a can of condensed milk at the start, and every cup of Milo made a spoonful of this sticky, sweet goodness would always go with it. Sometimes even two, if I felt like it. At times, I would even lick the spoon for the remnants after I put it into the drink. I have on occasion, simply taken a teaspoon of the stuff because it tastes really good (don’t judge).

But as the condensed milk fell from brim to bottom, and the spoon made a cloying scrape that signified the pending depletion of the condiment, I started to ration it. A full teaspoonful of condensed milk per cup of Milo became half a spoonful. Eventually the condensed milk ran out.

I then started using the milk for my cereal into my Milo, which is not as good, but a fair replacement. After all, I had run of cereal and was not planning on buying any cereal for a while, and I had been using whatever milk was left in cooking anyway. Making Milo is sort of cooking. It is a preparation of a beverage — the use of milk in Milo is certainly justified.

It would not even be a week before even the milk disappeared. And thus for the two weeks, my Milo has been unsweetened, unmilked, unembellished by anything. But I persist in imbibing this concoction, because even without the sweetness of excess, life and cups of Milo go on.

I might be unable to afford the sweetness that makes our life pleasurable, but that does not mean I should simply throw out my brew or stop drinking Milo altogether. We have become a culture so addicted to the sweet things in life that we forget what it feels like to live humbly. Maybe I grow to like the taste of ‘kosong’, maybe I will pull through and find a job and one day be able to afford condensed milk again. But in the meantime, let the hot chocolate warm my heart and relish in the joy of knowing at least you still have Milo to hold in your hands.

(If anyone is wondering why I can afford Milo but not condensed milk, when Milo in New York costs like $14 or something ridiculous for a 1kg can, I can’t. These cans of Milo are gifts. I will lament the day I run out of even Milo powder.)