Famous sentences of English ( 10/24/05 version)

Levels of description: syllable as word as phrase as clause as imperative

1. Stop!

Ambiguous relative clause

2. The girl that Sabu () wanted to leave () wore a blue suit.

In every case, the main clause is

2a. ((The girl (S))(wore a blue suit)).

Other related examples

2b. The girl that Sabu wanted (Billy) to leave () wore a blue suit.

Not ambiguous: only one gap and one coreferent  filler (girl).

2c. The girl that Sabu () wanted to leave (Billy) wore a blue suit.

Ambiguous: only one gap but two fillers? (girl, Sabu).  Not exactly – there is another  variant:

2c2  The girl that Sabu () wanted to leave (Billy) () wore a blue suit.


That example,  2c2,  is related to the peculiarities of "leave" - in 2c3.  Here, the pro that  is coreferent with the other possible object of leave.   Thus the mental dictionary  entry for leave must look something like this:  (NP) leave (NP1, NP2) ,  where neither  object NPi is necessary (The girl left.) but both objects may be filled (The girl left Bill a car,; a car for Bill).


2c3.  (The girl that (Sabu wanted to leave Billy( the girl)) wore a blue suit,)

2d. The girl left Sabu () wearing a blue suit.

Ambiguous: one gap but two fillers (girl, Sabu)

Ambiguity vs vagueness

I'd like to reserve ambiguity for the situation where there is more than one known possible structural description to an utterance.  Save vagueness for lots of other situations,, e.g. who is referent of "the girl"?, i.e who in the world is she or to whom does this NP refer?  The ambiguities here are about coreference – what NPs and NP gaps are possibly coreferent?

The role of inflections/cases

Note if English had a good set of pronouns, e.g. who (subject), whom (indirect obj), and wham (direct object), I don't think there would be a problem.


2e. **The girl wham Sabu wanted to (subj) leave (obj) wore a blue suit.

Complement clauses and relative clauses

Sentence (2) is a complex sentence – that is, it contains more than one clause.  It has a simple main clause, 2a, and two constituent clauses – a relative clause attached to the head "girl" [..wanted to leave….] and the complement inside that with [leave] as the verb.  Thus three verbs and three sets of grammatical relationships to ascertain.

The distinction between complements and relatives is important; they serve distinct functions in meaning.  Here is another ambiguous utterance; briefly explain this ambiguity.  Try to say how each interpretation serves a different meaning function.


  1. The fact that Otto knew was surprising.


3b         The professor the students believed died.

3c         The professor the students believed died was found alive.


The last sentences, 3b and 3c are not ambiguous but illustrate a typical "garden path" phenomenon – later information (..was found alive.) can invalidate a parsing decision (that died is the main verb of 3c as it really is in 3b.  In speech, intonation cues can help by keeping a rising fundamental frequency on died in 3c which signals more to come.


Parsing the most difficult English sentence!

  1. The player kicked the ball kicked him.

4a.        The player thrown the ball kicked him.

4b.        The player kicked the ball thrown him.

4c.         The player kicked the ball (that was) kicked (to) him.

4d.         The player (that was) kicked the ball kicked him.

4e.         The player kicked the ball by goalie scored easily.


This example (4) freezes your parser when several factors interact.   The two most significant are the ambiguity of -ed as cue to both active and passive sentences and omission of the relative clause pronoun (PRO+aux,  ..who was…).  Probably less important is the repetition of kick and the role of him as indirect object in 4c.  While any one of these is usually fine for our parsers, taken together there's no hope!


Video stars

"The bird that the cat watched was hungry." (aphasia test sentence assessing syntax)

"The leopard was eaten by the lion." (aphasia test)


From the Language video, this sentence is part of an aphasia diagnostic test, coupled with a drawing.  The woman from Iowa was given a standard picture interpretation task and was unable to use language to assign grammatical relationships (She didn't know who was said to eat who -- and she knew it!)


What do you think the cookie monster eats ()?

When did the boy say() that he hurt() himself?

When did the boy say how he hurt himself?


These are from the Human Language 2 video on children's language.  Complex sentences begin to appear between age two and three years in all languages.

Some recent examples from NPR radio

"Listen tomorrow for a story on how hard work helps lower income ..... students." (Garden path like 3b, 3c)

"Our next story is about orgasms that can kill infants and the elderly. ("slip of the tongue"!)

Garden path and intonation

"The professor (that) the students believed () died."

"the professor (that) the students believed (() died) was just lost."