May 08, 2004

An Escher Sentence in the wild

From the April 2003 issue of Golf Today comes this genuine non-linguist example of an Escher Sentence:

"With him breathing down my neck, I was still able to focus on what I was doing," Beem said. "More people have analyzed it than I have, but it's a nice notion that Tiger was up near the lead and I outplayed him."

So, what did Beem mean? How did he come to misrepresent that meaning in such an awful way? And why did he produce a type of structure so awful (as Geoff made clear in the post that started this thread) that it's used as a stock example of how semantically awful structures can get?

It's actually clear in broad terms what Beem intended. He meant that others have analyzed his victory more than he has.

OK, so is there any way that Beem's utterance could mean something like that? Well, perhaps his little language organ, bless its heart, was doing its damnedest to represent the intended meaning with a structure like one of the following:

(1) an accidental have: More people have analyzed it than I (/me), i.e. people other than Beem have analyzed it.
(2) a missing verb phrase: More people have analyzed it than I have (counted/had hot dinners/dated).
(3) a missing noun phrase: More people have analyzed it than I have (time to go into/the ability to count/knowledge of).
(4) an event counting reading: More people have analyzed it than (there have been events in which) I have (analyzed it).

You can see how the guy's generator might have gotten Beem into this mess, at least if, like me, you are partial to psycholinguistic just so stories. For instance, it could have started off producing a structure like that in (1), but suddenly realized when it got to than I that it really didn't like Beem saying More... than I <end of clause> at all. More... than I <end of clause> is stilted and low frequency for the modern golfer. Yet in frequency terms all was not lost, for the generator found itself in a relatively dense region of lexico-syntactic space: there are loads of juicy high frequency combos in the area, like than I thought, than I could, and so on. One of these combos, than I have ends in a word that was already primed by the earlier have, and by the high rate of occurrence of parallel structures on both sides of a than.

Now, if it had been me and my language organ then, well.... I can't be sure since Tiger never actually has breathed down my neck, and I've never been interviewed by Golf Today afterward, but  I'm guessing in such a situation we'd have been pretty flustered. We'd have flubbed it. Probably we'd have tripped my tongue into a disfluency so gross that the Golf Today journo would have given up completely on quoting me. (Hey, notice how plausible this is: I have NEVER been quoted in Golf Today.)

But we're not talking about me here. We're talking about a world class golfer with killer instincts. His generator stayed calm, unpanicked, steady as a rock. Cut its losses with a quick chip out of the bunker, long putt onto the green, tips the ball in for a barely noticed bogey, strolls straight onto the final sentence, which it takes with an easy looking 3 verb birdie; it tosses the ball into the crowd and declares victory. That's the type of cool you and your language organ gotta have when the Tiger's a breathin' down your neck.

Posted by David Beaver at May 8, 2004 06:47 AM