Can You Process These Tricky, but Grammatical, Sentences?
Starting with "The House That Jack Built," Neal Whitman helps us figure out what this sentence means: This is the cheese the rat the cat the dog worried chased ate.
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A few episodes back, in one of the tidbit segments, we explained the so-called “buffalo sentence”—a grammatical English sentence compose entirely of the word buffalo. Today we’re going to cover some other kinds of sentences that are in perfect compliance with English syntactic rules, and don’t use meaningless jargon and buzzwords, but are still all but incomprehensible.
Let’s start with an example of a very complex sentence that’s nonetheless easy to understand. Listen to this verse from the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” I got this version from Wikipedia:
This is the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This single sentence contains 14 clauses, but it’s so easily understood that it’s in a poem that people memorize and recite to children. It’s easy to understand because every chunk of meaning that comes along can be easily added to the existing meaning.
To illustrate, let’s start with the first clause, This is the farmer sowing his corn. Then we come to an adjective clause describing this farmer. It starts with That kept the rooster. We don’t need to hear any more to know how kept the rooster fits into the overall meaning. The farmer kept the rooster. But the adjective clause doesn’t stop there; it goes on: that crowed in the morn. Again, we don’t need to hear any more before we can fit that crowed in the morn into the bigger picture: The farmer kept the rooster, and the rooster crowed.
The adjective goes on still further. In fact, the entire rest of the verse is all part of one huge adjective clause that begins with That kept the rooster. Inside it there are noun phrases and smaller adjective clauses describing those noun phrases, and so on, but if you diagram it out, it’s all one long-winded adjective clause that ultimately relates a lot of information to the farmer.