May 06, 2004

Plausible Angloid gibberish

Try slipping into a conversation a remark like More people have written about this than I have. My colleague Jim McCloskey has pointed out to me that this kind of sentence (is it a sentence?) has a peculiar property: at first people seem to think it is grammatical and means something. Given a few moments to think, though, they soon realize that it is just plausible-looking English-style gibberish. It seems to be an intelligible sentence of the language but it is just masquerading. McCloskey has no explanation for this. Neither do I. And more people have tried to find one than we have.

[Read on for the rather astonishing attribution story regarding this type of example.]

The original example of this kind was something like "More people have been to Russia than I have", though other versions mentioning Moscow, Berlin, and Brooklyn have also been cited. The example type has been attributed to Andy Barss, Elliott Moreton, Lance Nathan, Colin Phillips, Chris Potts, Ken Shan, William Snyder, and probably others, but in fact researches by Kai von Fintel have revealed that the original source was probably an actual occurrence in the speech of Herman Schultze. He uttered the sentence in the presence of Mario Montalbetti, who thanks Schultze on page 6 of the Prologue to his 1984 MIT dissertation After Binding: On the Interpretation of Pronouns "for uttering the most amazing */? sentence I've ever heard". Von Fintel also found that a student at the University of Houston has actually used in an op-ed piece the sentence I admit that more people have been to Iraq than I have, so I don't know everything. But he may have been kidding; the piece is apparently intended to be humorous.

By the way, notice that the issue as I see it is not about whether the example type is ungrammatical, or whether it is merely semantically incoherent, or why. The puzzle is about why people initially don't notice there is anything wrong with it at all.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 6, 2004 11:59 PM