Escher Sentences Make Sense, Even Though They Shouldn't

More publications have closely examined linguistics than Curiosity has. It's not really our main focus, as much as we love to talk about it. And still more publications might have a stricter sense of grammatical correctness than us. For example, one of those more rules-oriented publications might have never used a sentence like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. Sure, it looks like it makes sense, but it's actually an Escher sentence — and it's absolutely nonsensical.

Related: 10 Historical Words We Should Bring Back

An Illusion of a Sentence

In a 2004 blog entry for UPenn's Language Log, Mark Liberman coined the phrase "Escher sentence" after those optical illusions of impossible staircases (which, to be fair, were not actually created by noted illusionist M.C. Escher). These are of a particular type of sentence structure that seems to make sense but winds up leading you down an endless spiral of grammatical nonsense. Here are a few examples; see if you can spot the pattern:

Getting the picture? The more we see these kinds of sentences, the less sense they seem to make. But let's parse out exactly what's going on here.

"More people have analyzed it than I have" — meaning what, exactly? More people than what? The meaning most clearly implied is, "More people have analyzed than I have [analyzed it]," which doesn't really make sense. If you are feeling generous, you could perhaps read the sentence as "More people than me have analyzed it," but there are two big problems with that. First, it's not actually how the structure of the sentence unfolds. Secondly, it's sort of obvious — you're only one person, so if anyone else analyzed it, then more people than you would have analyzed it.

What's especially strange about these kinds of sentences is that, even though they don't make sense, most of us can make sense of them. In general, we decipher them as something like this: when a writer says, "More people have analyzed it than I have," what they actually mean is, "Other people have analyzed it more than I have." "Other cats play with yarn more than mine does." "Other phones have more games than this one." It's not what is said; it's what we hear.

Linguistic Hedge Mazes

Escher sentences don't make sense but sound like they do. But another flavor of nonsensical sentences, known as garden-path sentences, do make sense and sound like they don't. We're not talking about bizarre phrases like the notorious "Buffalo sentence." A garden path sentence gets its name for the way it leads you down a "garden path" before taking a sharp turn and forcing you to reevaluate what you've read already. But once you put it into context, it actually does make sense. Here are a couple of prime examples, along with their translations.

  • "The man pushed through the door fell." This is one of the hardest ones to read, but reframe it in a conversation, and it makes sense. "Who fell?" "The man pushed through the door."
  • "The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi." The conversation trick works again. "Clothing is made of cotton." "Where does the cotton clothing is made of grow?" "In Mississippi."
  • "The man who hunts ducks out on weekends." The trick here is that the man who hunts isn't (necessarily) hunting ducks — but he ducks out to do it.
  • "The old man the boat." Piece of cake: "the old" is the subject, "man" the verb, "the boat" is the object. Now that you've got the hang of it, it's a lot easier to parse these things.

As you can see, garden-path sentences generally work by fooling you with words that have multiple meanings, set in familiar-sounding ways that actually function as different parts of the sentence structure. It's tricky (and a confusing way to actually convey an idea), but tilt your head and they'll suddenly come into focus. Still, it's probably fair to say that more sentences make sense than these do.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 31, 2018

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