May 19, 2006


According to an article by Linda Greenhouse in today's NYT ("Second Hearing on Detroit Drug-Search Case Shows Deep Divisions on Supreme Court"),

Nonetheless, Justice Breyer proceeded to make it clear that he remained unpersuaded by Mr. Baughman's argument that the Michigan Court of Appeals was correct in refusing to exclude from Booker T. Hudson's trial the drugs the police found when they executed a search warrant by bursting into his home without knocking or waiting for him to open the apparently unlocked door.

There can be no question that both Justice Breyer and Ms. Greenhouse are users of a human language, by the recursion-based standards of Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch.

In fact, this example is pretty much the opposite end of the syntactic stick from the flat structures used by the Pirahã and by Elmore Leonard characters. Using the crude metric of clausal depth featured in my study of secular trends in presidential embedding, Ms. Greenhouse's sentence weighs in with an truly impressive (word-wise) average embedding depth of 5.98, and a spectacular peak of 12. Without even one comma or other internal punctuation.

 0 [Nonetheless, 
 0 [Justice Breyer proceeded 
 1   [to make it clear 
 2      [that he remained 
 3         [unpersuaded by Mr. Baughman's argument 
 4            [that the Michigan Court of Appeals was correct 
 5               [in refusing 
 6                  [to exclude from Booker T. Hudson's trial the drugs 
 7                     [the police found 
 8                        [when they executed a search warrant 
 9                           [by bursting into his home 
 10                             [without knocking 
 10                                   or waiting 
 11                                [for him to open the 
 12                                   [apparently unlocked]
 11                                 door.]]]]]]]]]]]

(The quantification of depth has been revised to reflect Geoff Pullum's judgment that I was wrong to let "remained unpersuaded" go by without an increment of embedding:

"Remained" is definitely a complement-taking verb; and "unpersuaded by Mr. Baughman's argument..." is definitely a passive clause. So you have undercounted Greenhouse's astonishing hypotacticity: she hits 12.


Of course, this isn't the kind of center embedding that tamarins and starlings have been tested on (short versions of), it's almost all embedding of the type that linguists call "right branching" (because at each iteration, it's the right-hand constituent that is subdivided further). But still.

Gene Buckley, who sent in the link, point out that it's not just the depth, it's the negation:

It was only some top-down knowledge of Breyer and the usual votes on cases like this that permitted me to understand the sentence, at least when I was still on my first cup of coffee. The string of predicates "unpersuaded... correct... refusing... exclude...", three of which have some kind of negative meaning, was just too much. What follows is plenty complex as well!

Yes, don't forget "without knocking"!

I've noticed recently that readers of Language Log sometimes misconstrue my opinions, so I'll be explicit: no criticism of Justice Breyer or Linda Greenhouse is intended. I'm proud to be a member of a species that can think and write like that, when it wants to. Nor, of course, do I mean mean any disrepect towards people who talk like Elmore Leonard characters, with hardly any embedding at all. I'm one of them, sometimes, and not ashamed of it either. It takes all kinds.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 19, 2006 04:05 PM