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.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #458

grammatical gibberish

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. 


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.