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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

I was inspired to create our final example of a grammatical sentence that’s nearly impossible to process after reading a discussion thread on the Grammar Girl LinkedIn group. One person posted a grammar riddle: What is a sentence with because three times in a row? Here’s the usual answer to this riddle: “In the dictionary, apple comes before because, because because begins with ‘B’.” Now in my opinion, that’s a rather unsatisfying answer. Two of those becauses are just mentions of the word because, not actual uses of because. I’m going to create a sentence that actually uses because three times in a row by using the ability of because to begin a sentence. 

Let’s imagine a chain of events. The event that starts it all is an act of aggression: Sandy hit me! Our first sentence with because says what happened next: 

I hit Sandy because Sandy hit me. 

The next event comes when Mom finds out what I’ve done:

Mom praised me for standing up for myself because I hit Sandy because Sandy hit me. 

She doesn’t praise me for simply hitting Sandy; she praises me for hitting Sandy in revenge. The last event comes when Dad heard about the whole affair:

Dad told Mom two wrongs don’t make a right because Mom praised me for standing up for myself because I hit Sandy because Sandy hit me. 

At this point, the sentence is uncomfortably long, and it sounds like someone trying to blurt out an entire story as quickly as possible, before someone can interrupt. Even so, it’s understandable. Now let’s turn it into gobbledygook by simply putting each because clause before its main clause. 

Step 1: Because Mom praised me for standing up for myself because I hit Sandy because Sandy hit me, Dad told Mom two wrongs don’t make a right. 

Step 2: Because because I hit Sandy because Sandy hit me, Mom praised me for standing up for myself, Dad told Mom two wrongs don’t make a right. 

Step 3: Because because because Sandy hit me, I hit Sandy, Mom praised me for standing up for myself, Dad told Mom two wrongs don’t make a right. 

Sentences like this because-because-because monstrosity, and You are what what you eat eats, and This is the cheese the rat the cat the dog worried chased ate are good reminders that just because something is grammatical doesn’t mean it’s good writing. It’s almost always a good idea to read it aloud to hear how it sounds.

That piece was by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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