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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.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
March 13, 2015
Episode #458

Now, though, think about that final noun phrase, the one that’s also the title of the nursery rhyme: the house that Jack built. The adjective clause here, that Jack built, has a subject: Jack. So we can’t fit the house into this clause yet. We have to wait to hear the verb, built, and then we know how the house fits in. It functions as the missing direct object of built. In other words, this final adjective clause is an object-oriented adjective clause. All the others were subject-oriented. 

If we try to string together 14 object-oriented adjective clauses into one big clause, it’s impossible. Even doing it with just three is enough to leave most of us scratching our heads. 

We’ll start with the rat that ate the cheese, but instead of focusing on the rat, let’s focus on the cheese, and say The cheese that the rat ate. Now let’s talk about the cat that chased the rat, but instead of focusing on the cat, we’ll focus on the rat and say The rat that the cat chased. Finally, let’s do the same thing with the dog that worried the cat. Instead of focusing on the dog, we’ll focus on the cat, and say The cat that the dog worried. So far, all of the object-oriented adjective clauses are easy enough to get. But now, let’s put them all together, step by step. 

Step 1: This is the cheese that the rat ate.

Step 2: This is the cheese that the rat that the cat chased ate.

Step 3: This is the cheese that the rat that the cat that the dog worried chased ate.

That last step is where I completely lose track, even though I know what the sentence is supposed to mean. It gets even worse if I take out the relative pronouns. Although I can make sense of This is the cheese the rat ate, the sentence This is the cheese the rat the cat the dog worried chased ate just sounds like a disconnected series of noun phrases and verbs. The adjective clause begins right after the cheese, but you have to wait until the entire end of the very end of the sentence to hear ate, before you know what the rat did to the cheese. 

The food writer Michael Pollan has used the same kind of hard-to-process nested adjective clause in a couple of his books. You’re probably familiar with the saying You are what you eat. But Pollan takes it to the next level. If you eat animals, then you’re eating things that also eat. Or at least, they did before they were killed to become your food. So by the transitive property, if you eat animals, you are what those animals eat. This is the thought that Pollan expresses in a section title in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “You are what what you eat eats.” “What, what”? “Eat eats”? Pollan’s example isn’t impossibly difficult; it’s just difficult enough to force the reader to stop and think about what Pollan is saying, which is what he wants the reader to do. By the way, Pollan isn’t the originator of this quotation. I also found it on page 80 of the 1985 novel Dreams of Sleep by Josephine Humphreys.

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