Does this mean anything to you?

In the past, I have discussed strange sentences like garden path sentences and Moses illusions. These sentences, while strange or inaccurate in some way, are ultimately grammatical. I find sentences like these particularly fascinating because they push the limits of what our brains will tolerate while reading. There is another type of sentence I encountered recently that seems innocuous at first, but as I researched more I was blown away by how widely studied this particular sentence construction is. For an example, take a look at this tweet from Dan Rather from back in 2019 and see if you can notice what is going on.

This sentence makes zero sense. If you read it quickly though and don’t overthink it, you might just convince yourself that it does! Look at the replies for instance. The overwhelming majority of the replies have completely missed the fact that this sentence is poorly formed and have assumed that the main point of this sentence is that the presidents English is not very good. This tweet is attempting to form a comparative between two groups of people in different dimensions of comparison, making it ungrammatical.

To visualize this, let’s break it down into two halves. “I think there are more candidates on stage who speak Spanish more fluently…” – Okay, so here he is setting up a comparison where we are looking at a quantity of people. “…than our president speaks English.” – but he finishes the statement off with a statement regarding how well the president at the time could speak English. He is trying to compare a number of Spanish speaking people to the fluency of another’s English. Even as I write this, I am having a hard time describing exactly what the sentence is “trying” to say, but I think we can all agree that it makes no sense whatsoever.

What exactly are sentences like this called? These sentences are called comparative illusions (the sciency name) or Escher sentences (the more fun name). The name Escher sentence comes from the famous artist M.C. Escher, who’s famous Penrose stairs illusion involves a staircase that looks normal on the surface, but ultimately go no where and cannot function like a normal set of stairs. Honestly, if there were an award for naming things, this would absolutely win because I cannot think of a better fitting description than that. These sentences seem completely fine, until they’re not and then you are just left to stand back and wonder what the heck is going on. The stereotypical example used widely for this phenomenon is a little easier to spot:

  • More people have been to France than I have.

Again, we see a sentence that is trying to compare two separate ideas in a single sentence. In a sentence like this one, we are presented with a set of individuals in the first clause (more people), but when we get to the second clause (I have), we discover that there is no such set of individuals with which to draw a comparison.

To be clear, this is not an issue of plurality in the second clause. The sentence “More people have been to France than we have” is equally awful.

The most striking thing about these sentences is that people will not report any sort of weirdness on first glance. It’s not until you take a longer look and try to determine exactly what is being said that you start to notice what is going on.

So, what exactly is going on then? Well, as is the case with a lot of linguistic weirdness, there is no way for us to be able to know for sure. Some researchers have tried to argue that, like I mentioned above, the sentence is trying to use two templates for comparison which are fine in isolation. It is only when you combine them in the same sentence that things start to go awry.

Think of it like this. Here I will present you with two true and grammatical sentences:

  • John is too tired to drive his car safely.
  • John has driven for as many hours as Tim has.

These sentences both being true does not allow you to blend them together into a third sentence like so:

  • John is too tired as Tim has.

Now this is just a bad sentence and not an Escher sentence in the slightest. Let’s try to apply this same sort of logic to an Escher sentence though:

  • More people have gone to France than I could believe.
  • John and Mary have gone to France more than I have.
  • More people have gone to France than I have.

It could also be the case that our brains are noticing that there is deleted material at the end of this construction that we expect to be there because we see sentences like that all the time. Take this sentence for example:

  • Sally ate some pizza and Amanda did too.

This sentence is completely fine and our brains don’t struggle with it at all because we can infer that the “did too” in this case means that Amanda also ate some pizza. So with an Escher sentence, when we encounter the end of it “… than I have.” our brain might just be saying “oh I can fill in the blanks here” and because we have some working examples to reference, we think it all makes sense and we call it close enough.

All of these theories have been hard to prove in the past and there hasn’t really been a concrete solution as to why we are seemingly unperturbed by these horrible sentences. I’m curious to know what other people think of these so if you have any theories about them, or if you want to try to convince me that they are ultimately fine, let me know down below.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


When you can’t see the sentence for the trees

Syntax is the greatest subfield of linguistics and I say this as a syntactician with absolutely zero bias (wink wink). The field of syntax cares about the ordering of words in a sentence, and the operations that took place to create the word order known as the derivation. The thing that I love about syntax is that is basically a series of math and logic problems. We can take a sentence and work backwards from it to learn how it was constructed. Now before everyone panics about the fact that I am trying to equate math and language lets all just take a deep breath and I will walk us through how a syntactic derivation works.

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Before we start talking about full sentences though, we need to start a little bit smaller. We will start by talking about verbs. A verb, as you already know, is an action word that tells us what happened, what is happening, or what will happen depending on the tense used. Think of the verb in a sentence as the conceptual seed of a sentence. There are three major verb types that we will talk about today that are separated based on how many arguments they have. These verb types are transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive.

When you picture a basic sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object, you are likely picturing a transitive verb. Transitive verbs are verbs that have two obligatory arguments (the subject and the predicate). What this means is that the information contained in a sentence with a transitive verb includes: an action (the verb itself), the thing that is doing the action (the subject), and the thing that the action is happening to (the predicate). For instance, you can take the verb ‘discuss’ as a good example of a transitive verb. ‘Discuss’ needs at least two arguments (nouns in this case) in order to create a grammatical sentence. This means that you are no able to say something like “John discussed.” or “Discussed the contract.”, you would need to say “John discussed the contract” (Note that you can say “Discuss the contract!”. This is a null subject imperative though and we will talk about those another time).

So, to bring the math connection back around; one way that we can represent sentences like “John kicked the ball.” is by using parentheses. It would look something like this:

                [John [discussed [the contract]]]

Now I am simplifying things quite a bit from how it would actually be represented, but for the purposes of this article it’s good enough. Let’s break down the bracketing so you can see why it is organized like this. In the innermost layer, we have “the contract” which is the thing that is being discussed. This is why it is contained within the bracketing for the verb “discuss” because there is a connection between these two words. On the outermost layer, we have “John”, who is the one that is doing the discussing. “John” has the verb contained within his bracketing because he has the same sort of connection to the act of discussing that the action of discussing does to the contract. Again, this is simplifying things a bit, but I am just trying to explain why we have this embedded bracketing as opposed to something like [John][discussed][the contract] where there is no clear connection between any of the words.

Now, lets branch out to the other verb types. Intransitive verbs are verbs which only have one obligatory argument rather than two. Intransitive verbs are a little bit tricky because they are actually divided into two subtypes, unergatives and unaccusatives. Full disclosure; I constantly get tripped up on the difference between these two because it is subtle and a little unintuitive, but it is my hope that maybe teaching people about it on the internet will also help to clear it up in my head!

The biggest difference between these two verbs deal with whether their subject is semantically an agent or not. If you kick something or hit something, then YOU are a semantic agent in that case because (it is safe to assume) you are doing those things intentionally. Conversely, if you fall, it is not likely that you are doing this on purpose so we can say that you are not the agent in this case but rather that you are the experiencer; the one who experiences the fall.

Unergative intransitive verbs are single argument verbs that only have an obligatory subject (which is a semantic agent) and no obligatory object. I have used the word obligatory twice in this sentence to really drive home the fact that there is a difference between an object that needs to be there and one that does not. Take the sentence “John ate the cake” for example. This sentence has two arguments, “John” and “the cake”, but the fact that it has two arguments does not make it transitive. It is perfectly grammatical and acceptable to simply say “John ate” and leave “the cake” off of it. This is because “the cake” is an optional argument in this sentence, or what we call an ADJUNCT argument in syntax terms. Adjuncts are optional arguments that can be removed without making the sentence ungrammatical.

So we see that a verb like “eat” is a great example of an unergative verb because you only need to specify the thing that is doing the eating, and you are not required to specify the thing that is eaten. Other good examples are things like “run” or “walk” because they are things that require intent and agency to do, but there is no need to specify where you are running or walking to. You can simply just specify that movement is occurring and leave it at that.

An unaccusative intransitive verb is a verb whose subject is not a semantic agent. The best example of an unaccusative sentence would be something like “the tree fell” or “the window broke” because things like trees and windows do not have any agency and are certainly not falling or breaking on their own accord. It is also important to note that unaccusative verbs cannot have any type of object after the verb.

Both unergative and unaccusative verb sentences have simple bracket representations like this:
                [John [ran]]

                [The tree [fell]]

The third type of verb that we will talk about is the ditransitive verb. A ditransitive verb is a verb that requires three arguments (two nouns and a preposition usually) in order to be grammatical. Take the verb “put” for instance. You can’t use “put” as a transitive verb and simply say something like “John put the book”, you also need to specify where the book was put! This is why we would need to make it “John put the book on the table” instead. The labeled bracketing for these ditransitives gets a little more complicated:

                [John [put [the book][on the table]]]

Now keep in mind that these are just simple sentences, but you can imagine as they get bigger and more complex that the labeled bracketing will become very hard to read. Luckily, syntacticians have figured out a more visually pleasing way to represent these sentences that serves the same purpose. Allow me to introduce you to the sentence tree:

John put the book on the table

These trees are drawn with a program known as LaTeX, which is a typesetting used in many scientific and academic settings. If you haven’t worked with LaTeX before, it is hard to describe but it is essentially a halfway point between typing and programming. For example, for this sentence tree above I had to provide LaTeX with a command to draw the tree, and that command makes use of the bracketing that I have been talking about all along. Here is the command that I used:



\Tree [ John [ put [{the book} {on the table} ] ] ]


So essentially, this command is taking the same information that is contained in the bracketing and turning it into a visual representation that allows us to easily see how all of the parts connect without having to count all of the brackets by hand.

Now my biggest fear at this point is that my supervisor will somehow stumble across this post and think less of me for these trees. It is at this point I will remind you that there is SOOOOOOOO MUCH that I am glossing over. I am just trying to give a brief overview of the things that I do so that people like my mom will have a better understanding of some of the things that I do. There are entire four-month university courses dedicated to almost all of the subjects that I talk about on this blog so I can’t talk about them all in detail, but if people are interested, I will certainly keep writing more about it. I am a syntactician at heart and I could go on about this stuff until I pass out, but I don’t want to keep you here forever either.

This is a logical stopping point for this one, but I am sure that I will be returning to syntax again in the future so keep an eye out for that. Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

What is a question?

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For many years I have been a fan of the TV gameshow Jeopardy! I have been recounted tales of when I was two years old, and I would be dancing in front of the television to the Final Jeopardy! music. I haven’t watched it in quite some time now unfortunately (partly because cable is too expensive and partly because I am still not entirely over the passing of Alex Trebek) but for some reason, the show popped into my head, and I started to think about questions.

For those of you who may not have seen the show, Jeopardy! is a trivia gameshow where contestants are given an answer as a prompt, and they then must respond to the host with the question that would generate that answer. It is not as tricky as it may sound though. For instance, contestants would be read the prompt “Snake Island off Brazil’s coast is filled with golden lanceheads a deadly pit type of this snake” and would respond with the question “what is a viper?”

We won’t focus on the other rules regarding the dollar amounts of the questions, the daily doubles, or the wagering in final jeopardy. For now, let’s just focus on the question formation.

In a random survey of 60 Jeopardy! categories from the Jeopardy! YouTube page (the equivalent of 5 games), contestants responded with 185 ‘what’ questions, and 115 ‘who’ questions. Let’s also note that this number may be slightly skewed thanks in part to current reigning champion Matt Amodio who has drawn some heat for his propensity to respond to every prompt with ‘what’s’, even if a ‘who’ would be more appropriate. Just take a listen to his response from the category named Audible (most contestants would respond with “Who is (Matthew) McConaughey?”).

Unexpected responses aside, we do see that using ‘who’ and ‘what’ are the two question words that these contestants are using. This is not mandated by the rules of Jeopardy! in any way. Although I was not able to find examples, there are reported instances of contestants responding with ‘where’ questions. According to the Jeopardy! rules, you are only required to respond in the form of a question. So how can you know for sure if your Jeopardy! response is valid?

The first thing we need to ask ourselves is: what is a question and how is it formed in English? Questions are sentences that are aimed to have the addressee (the person you are speaking to) to provide information. There are several different types of questions that a person could ask, and not all of them are acceptable Jeopardy! responses.

Typical Jeopardy! responses are known as wh-questions. These types of questions use words like who, what, where, when, or why to signal to the addressee what kind of response you are expecting. If you ask a question with “when”, you are likely expecting some sort of response dealing with time. In the same vein, if you ask a “where” question, you would be looking for a place.

The funny thing about Jeopardy! is that even though there are plenty of responses that are formed with place names or specific years, the contestants will use “what” for these questions. There are a few reasons for this. In the case of the place names, using a where would seem a little strange based on how the answers are usually worded. If you asked someone the question “Where is New Orleans?”, you would probably be confused if someone answered with something like “This city was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, y’all” (A Round of Gulf Coast category from June 11, 2013).

The second reason for these “what” questions is that contestants are under a large amount of pressure to perform quickly. If you were on the show, and you were asked to respond to a prompt quickly in the form of a question, it would just be easier to use a default “what” than it would be to stress about whether a “when” or a “where” could apply.

So this tells us “what” a question is, but “how” are questions made? For wh-questions, the sentence is first generated to mirror how the answer would look. So, imagine you had a declarative statement like “The capital of Ontario is Toronto.” To ask what the capital of Ontario is as a question, the initial form of it would be “The capital of Ontario is what?” This is acceptable as it is, although you could imagine someone saying something like this in an incredulous way perhaps (“The capital of Ontario is WHAT?!?!).

Once we have this form of the sentence, the wh-word will move to the front of the sentence and give us the question “What is the capital of Ontario?” What this means for Jeopardy! contestants is that, when faced with the prompt “This city is the capital of Ontario”, it would be perfectly fine for them to answer with a question like “Toronto is what?” This would likely raise a few eyebrows though, and it would be tough to do on the spot. Again, with the pressure these contestants are under, it’s easier to try and keep things simple and consistent.

Another way to form a question is through the process of auxiliary inversion, where the auxiliary verb (can, may, is) is moved to the front of the sentence. These questions are known as yes/no questions because the answer to them is, unsurprisingly, a yes or a no. This type of question is, surprisingly, permitted by the rules of Jeopardy! It would result in seemingly strange question and answer pairings; “Is it Toronto?” is not the type of question that would elicit the answer “It is the capital of Ontario.”

This type of question, apparently, has been used in the past by some contestants. I was unable to track down any physical evidence of this, but it is possible within the rules.

The rules of Jeopardy! (while not explicitly published anywhere) do not require the questions provided by the contestants to be grammatical or to match up with the answer explicitly. The questions are only required to be clearly identifiable as questions.

Questions that present two or more possible options are known as alternative questions. This would be the type of question that you might ask your child at desert time. “Would you like cake, or ice cream?” These types of questions could not be used in a game of Jeopardy! because the goal of Jeopardy! is to provide a question response that would satisfy the answer provided, and the answer to an alternative question is one of the alternatives presented. It would be confusing and difficult to construct an answer prompt that would elicit this type of a question. I also don’t imagine you could convince the judges that “What is Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria?” is a good response to “This female ruler was the first member of the Royal family to live at Buckingham Palace” even though one of those alternatives is correct.

Another question type not allowed in the rules of Jeopardy! is known as a tag question. It is called this because you are adding a ‘tag’ to a declarative sentence that turns it into a question. An example of this would be if you think that Tobias likes jean shorts, but you aren’t 100% confident and you would like some confirmation, so you would say “Tobias likes jean shorts, doesn’t he?” The first portion of the sentence is just a declarative statement (Tobias likes jean shorts), and it is the “doesn’t he” that turns the whole thing into a question.

The response to a question like this would either be true because the initial statement was true, or false for because the initial statement was false. Because of this, it would be difficult to construct a Jeopardy! style answer where the contestant could provide a tag question response. This has not been tried by a contestant, but I cannot imagine it being accepted by the judges.

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A final type of question that would not be allowed by the rules of Jeopardy! is an inflection question. This is done in English, not by using question words or by rearranging the sentence in any way. Instead, these questions are made by raising the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence as if to say “I think this right??” A question like this would not be permitted in Jeopardy! because you are not explicitly forming a question with your statement, you are instead questioning whether the statement that you said is correct.

All of this is not to say that there are no fun ways to bend the rules of Jeopardy! So long as your response is a proper question, you can still respond in some clever, corner-case ways.

For example, if the answer provided was something like “This book series has children around the globe searching crowded malls and beaches for the title character, portrayed in a red and white sweater and toque.” A perfectly acceptable and legal response question would be “Where’s Waldo?” The Jeopardy! team even cites similar instances of this situation that are permitted in this article.

So now we have seen that there are several ways that you can make a question in English, and many of them are permitted in Jeopardy! However, if you ever find yourself on the show, it is likely easier to just stick with the traditional “What/Who is __?” type responses. Under those bright studio lights with real money on the line, it would be a shame for you to make a silly error that get’s your response disqualified just so you could look a little bit clever.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

There’s an elephant in my pajamas!

Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas.

Elephant in pajamas – by: Amy Block

A sentence like this one above has two possible meanings, even though you probably only thought of one. One option is the logical meaning where “I” am the one wearing the pyjamas while the elephant being shot. The other possible meaning is that “the elephant” is the one in my pyjamas last night and that’s why I shot it. Now obviously, this meaning is a bit of a stretch (ha!), but that’s only because it is an elephant that was shot. If you change out “elephant” for something a little more realistic, it is easier to convince yourself of this alternate meaning.

Last night I shot a burglar in my pyjamas.

Here you can likely imagine both interpretations, although it does raise the new question of why is this burglar wearing your pyjamas?

There is also a way that we can modify this sentence so that the “I” subject is likely not the one that is “in” something.

Last night I trapped a burglar in my closet.

Just by changing two words, we have made it so it is most likely the burglar who is in the closet, and not me.

Now obviously these sentences are just one silly example of how changing a word or two can change how we might interpret a sentence, but ambiguous sentences show up quite often in one context quite often.

In a newspaper headline like this, we can see the same kind of ambiguity problem. Namely, there is a prepositional phrase (with knife) at the end of the sentence that could reasonably apply to either the subject of the sentence (the cops), or the direct object of it (the man).

Sentences like these don’t often pose a problem for us because we have out own logic and intuition to rely on. Let’s take it one step further and imagine the effects that this might have on a computer. If a computer were to try and “read” these sentences, what conclusion do you think it would draw?

Computers rely on several processes when it comes to interpreting language, but one of the biggest ones (and the easiest one to explain here) is known as statistical learning. Statistical learning is a process by which you take a large set of data, known as a training set, and feed it to a computer program that reads the data one chunk at a time, and makes note of what comes after each chunk. These chunks can be set to a certain number of words to be processed all at once, known as a window.

If you feed the computer a large enough set of data, you can then ask it to start making predictions (like you see in the predictive text on your phone). The computer is able to make guesses on what is most likely to come next based on how often that combination appeared in the training data that was fed to it. This is where all of the statistical stuff comes in.

This process is all very math heavy and quite hard to wrap your head around, but let’s try and simplify it with an example. Imagine I asked you to fill in the remainder of this phrase:

To kill two birds with one _______.

If you guessed stone, then congratulations! Your internal statistical learning system is working normally. If you put in a word like bullet, you might not be incorrect based on your own experience, it might just mean you are working from a different set of training data from most people and you are not familiar with this idiom.

The idiom “to kill two birds with one stone” is very common in North American English and you have likely seen or heard it so many times that you can intuitively know how to finish it. You can probably think of other examples too where after seeing one word come up, you would know for certain what the next word is.

Computers are working on the exact same principle that you just employed to complete that idiomatic expression, but they are doing it on a much different level than you are. Being able to change the scale of the “window” (how big of a chunk) that they are looking through allows them to notice patterns in language that you or I could never notice on our own.

The biggest problem with this from a computing standpoint is that memory is finite for computers so if you make these windows too big, the computer will not be able to handle it. If you make it too small, you won’t get enough useful data to make good predictions. You were able to easily predict the last word of that idiom because you have a large window and you are able to have access to the entire sentence at once. Imagine you were only able to see something like “with one ___”. It would be a lot harder to make a good prediction with this small amount of information.

Another problem is, computers don’t know the meaning of these phrases that they are reading and predicting. This leads us back to the ambiguous sentences from the beginning of this post.

Imagine you could design a program where you could give a “trained” computer the sentence “I shot an elephant in my pyjamas” and then ask it who was wearing the pyjamas. The computer would likely wrongly assume that the elephant was the one in the pyjamas because more often than not in English, when we have a preposition like “in” after a noun, it is meant to be associated with that nearest noun.

There is a chance that the computer might be tipped off in some way somehow by the fact that they are MY pyjamas though, and because of this first person possessive pronoun would correctly associate them. What about a sentence that only uses inanimate objects and pronouns?

The trophy would not fit in the cabinet because it was too big.

We as humans are able to reason that the trophy being too big is the most likely problem here. But again, the computer would likely make the wrong prediction here because it would want to associate the it pronoun with the closest possible noun in the sentence.

All these sentences can be easily disambiguated to ensure that the computer makes the right choice every time.

I shot an elephant while I was in my pyjamas.

The trophy would not fit in the cabinet because the trophy was too big.

Without any ambiguities the computers will be happier knowing that they can understand the sentences just like we can. All of this is to say that when you are writing, be kind to your computer and make sure that you are writing in clear, unambiguous sentences for their benefit too.

Alternatively, the takeaway might be that we should write needlessly ambiguous sentences to confuse the computers and hope it slows down the inevitable terminator-style uprising. I’ll leave the interpretation of this blog post to you the reader.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

Things I learned while walking in my garden

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Have you ever come across a sentence where something feels off the first time you read it?

The horse raced past the barn fell.

If this is your first time encountering a sentence like this, you probably had to read it a few times before you figured out that it was the horse that was falling, not the barn. Although this sentence is weird, it’s perfectly grammatical and you have no problem understanding it once you know the trick to it. What about for a sentence like this?

After the man paid the clerk asked for more money.

Jerry Seinfeld performing stand up on Seinfeld. (NBC/Youtube)

So what’s the deal with these sentences anyway? Sentences like these are called garden path sentences. They get their name from the fact that you feel like you are being led down a lovely garden path as you read the sentence, before you are suddenly brought to the edge of a cliff looking into the void of “ungrammaticality” and realizing that you should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

Garden path sentences show up rarely in natural writing, but they are used in psycholinguistic research to figure out how our brains respond to unexpected things. One way that psycholinguists can test this is to do what is called a self-paced reading task, which presents a sentence to readers one word at a time.

By presenting a sentence like this and recording how long it takes for the reader to move to the next word, we can look at the exact point where they encounter the oddness of the sentence see how they react.

Before we get lost in that rose patch though, let’s think about the possible ways that people could process something they are reading. Because English has a relatively strict word order, seeing certain words might be a good signal of what is coming next. When you are reading it one word at a time through, are you simply interpreting the most likely possibility of how the sentence will end based on what you know about your own language? Or are you thinking of all the possible ways that a sentence could go, and then cutting off the impossible ones with some hedge trimmers as you encounter more words?

Both explanations seem possible, but the second one does feel a little bit more cumbersome. Because languages are recursive and sentences could be infinitely long, trying to keep all the possible structures in your mind would be impossible. But what if we relied on the fact that our brains are essentially super computers? What if our brains understand that most sentences aren’t infinitely long and there are actually only a few things that we would have to look out for if we don’t care about what specific word follows, but instead just care about whether the sentence could continue from this point or not? Now it seems a little bit easier to imagine that we could be processing things like this.

So how exactly are our brains interpreting sentences? And how can these garden path sentences confirm that? Well, if we isolate the point of weirdness in a self-paced reading task, we can see whether readers slow down at all when they reach that point. As I mentioned before, sentences can be infinitely long, so when we encounter something like this, it shouldn’t be a surprise to our brains that the sentence keeps going and there shouldn’t be any slowing down.

But it does slow down. When readers reach this odd point in the sentence where we introduce the second verb, a significant portion of readers will take a little bit more time to figure out just what in the fertilizer is going on.

The key thing that we do need to realize though is that while our brains might be super computers that could possibly keep this idea in mind, our brains are also driven by efficiency. What this means is that, would it be worth spending all that energy to consider the infinite possibilities of sentences when we could just keep the most likely possibility in mind and revaluate the rest of the possibilities when that doesn’t work.

Let’s take another look at the sentence “the horse raced past the barn fell”. As most of you have probably noticed by now, the reason we get tripped up by this sentence is the fact that “the horse raced past the barn” could stand on its own as a sentence.

As we work our way through the sentence one word at a time our brains, being the efficient machines that they are, are trying to only consider the most likely possibility. This means that by the time we reach the word “barn” we have come across a subject “the horse”, a past tense verb “raced” and an object “past the barn”. The possibility that our brain doesn’t consider is that this entire phrase is referring to a horse that was raced past the barn, presumably by a jockey who needed to get home to water the carrots.

When we encounter the next word “fell”, the first thing our brain thinks is that “oh, barns fall all the time, so it must be the barn that fell”. After trying that angle and realizing that it doesn’t work, our brain panics and thinks “wait, I must have missed something” before it goes back to reanalyze things from the beginning with this new information in mind and makes the correct assumption that it was indeed the horse that was raced past the barn who fell.

So why didn’t they just say “the horse that raced past the barn fell” in the first place? Because then, I would have nothing interesting to write about! This is another big part of linguistics where we try to push the limits of what is grammatical and see how people will react to it. After planting a small seed of an idea in someone’s head, we are able to grow our understanding of how the human brain processes sentences. There are so many more amazing things that research has been able to teach us about language, and I can’t wait to keep sharing them with you all every week.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

It’s raining outside, but what is “it” all about?

It is raining outside.

It seems to be raining outside.

There appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

Photo by Jill Burrow on

Apart from talking about some gloomy weather, these sentences also share another common thread. Think about the subjects of these sentences. What does “It” mean? Where is “There”? Why do we even need them in these sentences?

These types of pronouns are known as expletive pronouns (no, not those kind of expletives, that’s for another post). These expletive pronouns, also known as pleonastic pronouns or dummy pronouns, act as placeholders in languages that have a strict requirement for subjects. English is a language that really wants to have a subject, regardless of whether that subject actually means anything. Compare the examples above to these sentences:

Is raining outside.

Seems to be raining outside.

Appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

Just reading these sentences, you probably got a queasy feeling in your stomach telling you “oh, I don’t like this at all”. That’s your native intuition as a speaker of English kicking in to tell you that those are not grammatical sentences. But some of these sentences are only bad because you are reading them as opposed to hearing them. Listen to this clip from Pawnee’s own Leslie Knope.

Parks and Recreation: Season 5 Episode 19

Seems to me we oughta use it.” When we read sentences without subjects, it provokes a stronger reaction compared to hearing someone say it, especially in the quick, casual register used in the clip above.

So what does this mean for the English language as a whole? Well, its hard to say for sure. It could be that we are witnessing a gradual language change where we are becoming more comfortable with ditching these meaningless expletive pronouns in our speech. After all, there are languages that are able to talk about the weather without the need for expletive pronouns.

In a language like Italian you can say “sta piovendo” where the “sta” is would be a verb like ‘be’ in English, and “piovendo” of course means ‘raining’. The word for word translation for a phrase like this would be “is raining”, and if you ask someone who speaks Italian, they likely wouldn’t get the same queasy feeling from “sta piovendo” that you get from “is raining”.

English isn’t the only language that requires these dummy pronouns to describe the weather. Germanic languages all require these pronouns in sentences, even if they don’t refer to anything at all. In German for instance, the phrase “es regnet” translates into English as “it rains”, where again, the ‘it’ doesn’t refer to anything in particular, but it needs to be there for the phrase to make sense (let’s ignore the lack of a verb and tense for the sake of simplicity here).

But is English changing? As a linguist, it’s not my job to try and dictate what should happen to language or to tell you to do the same either. What I can say though is that this might be something to keep your ears open for. Language phenomena have this funny way of sticking in your brain once you know about them. These expletive pronouns are something that may have gone completely unnoticed by you for most of your life, but now that you know a little bit more about them, you will probably notice them a lot more often. If this is the result of natural language change happening in real time, maybe the next time the rain is falling wherever you are you can go outside and scream “IS RAINING!” to get people used to this change a little bit faster.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.