Deciphering Ungrammatical and Nonsensical Sentences

Friday, June 103 min read

Even native English speakers who have been taking formal grammar lessons since grade school tend to read, speak, and write by ear. If we read a phrase and understand its meaning, we accept that it’s likely correct. On the other hand, if we hear something that sounds a little off, or read a sentence that makes our eyes skip on the page, it’s hard to make sense of it. Sometimes it’s the actual sentence structure, and sometimes it’s our brains playing tricks on us. In the world of linguistics and grammar, there are names for some of these tricky constructions.

Escher Sentences

Also called comparative illusions, Escher sentences get their name from the art of M.C. Escher. This Dutch graphic artist was known for mathematically inspired optical illusions, many of which featured Penrose stairs, or “impossible staircases,” which form a continuous loop. Like the famous artworks, Escher sentences appear to be something recognizable from afar, but fail to make total sense upon inspection.

As an example: “More people have been to Berlin than I have.” At first glance it might seem like a perfectly simple sentence, but at a closer look, what exactly is this sentence trying to say? The word “than” indicates a comparison of two groups. The first group is people who have been to Berlin. The second group doesn’t exist the way this sentence is written.

For this sentence to make grammatical sense, it could say something like, “More people have been to Berlin than to Paris.” This way, it’s comparing the number of people who have been to Berlin with those who have traveled to Paris. But, as originally written, the sentence has no literal meaning.

Center Embedding

A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a verb. Sentences are made up of clauses, and multiple clauses can be strung together to form longer sentences.

More complex sentences can be created through a construction called center embedding. These sentences can often be challenging to read, but they aren’t technically grammatically incorrect. Here’s an example:

The child that the mother loves cried.

In this sentence, there are two clauses: “The child cried” and “The mother loves the child.” Through center embedding, the two ideas are intertwined into one sentence. It’s not the smoothest execution or easiest read, but technically it’s a grammatically correct sentence.

In theory, there’s no limit to the number of clauses one could pull together in a sentence, but it’s not usually very effective or useful. The more clauses there are embedded inside one another, the more difficult the sentence becomes to understand. Take this example:

The TV the girl the boy likes bought was stolen.

This structure works grammatically, but it’s too hard to parse out the multiple ideas being introduced. When it’s expressed as three independent clauses, it’s easier to understand:

The boy likes the girl. The girl bought the TV. The TV was stolen.

Skilled writers can use these techniques very sparingly to comedic effect. Think of the “my sister’s roommate’s cousin told us her third grade teacher with the iguana had a crush on you” kind of joke.

Garden Path Sentences

Technically, these sentences are also grammatically correct — they just seem ungrammatical. Take this example:

The young man the boat.

At first glance, our brains likely read this as a sentence fragment, or missing a few words. That’s because we assume the subject of the sentence is “the young man” and we’re missing a verb. Actually, the subject is “the young,” as in a group of youthful people, and the verb is “man” as in “operate.” This is a perfectly grammatical sentence about young people who control (or “man”) a maritime vessel. But it’s still not the most natural construction. Here are a few more examples of “garden path” sentences with the verbs bolded to help make sense of the meaning:

I convinced her children are noisy.

The man who whistles tunes pianos.

The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.

These types of sentences are called “garden path” sentences because of the saying, “to be led down the garden path.” The writer may not be intentionally misleading, but that’s still what’s happening. Our brains make assumptions about meaning in a sentence as we read, and sometimes our brains guess wrong. If you're a writer, it can be helpful to read your work aloud to avoid these awkward constructions.

Featured image credit: agmit/ iStock

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