The rat the cat the dog chased caught died

There’s a sentence I learned in the second class of a course I took the first semester of my second year of studying English in university. The class was called “Theoretical Approaches to English Grammar”.

I don’t remember everything from every lesson in every course I took in uni. I think that applies to most people. But I do remember some things from this class and this course. Among others: It was a hard one. I struggled so hard to pay attention in class, I’d zone out because I couldn’t understand what the professor was talking about, because I struggled with the material, which he would always assume we had read and understood before class, not really explaining anything. I struggled with the assignments, and not being able to understand what I’d done wrong, all I knew was my work wasn’t right. It was also the first course in which I got an A. I couldn’t believe how that had happened. I remember studying in uni with a friend all day before the exam, and I spent the entire evening and night rewriting notes from the main textbook, until about 2am, the exam started at 9, I felt like a nervous zombie, certain I was going to fail.

But we’re getting off topic here now. What I wanted to write about was this sentence, the headline of this entry: The rat the cat the dog chased caught died. Our professor for this class was a rather old man, English, teaching English to mainly Norwegian students at a university in Norway. I disagreed with him on a few things actually. For one, he claimed that as non-native speakers we could not have intuition about the language. He also tried to claim this to a student who was raised bilingual or trilingual with English as one of the languages, without knowing anything about her outside of the fact that she looked very Nordic with her white blonde hair and blue eyes. Another thing we disagreed on was this sentence.

The purpose of this class was to teach us that sentences can be grammatically correct but still make no sense. A very famous example from Noam Chomsky: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. It doesn’t make any sense. Yet the grammatical structure is completely correct. Adjective, adjective, noun, verb, adverb. The rat the cat the dog chased caught died. Determiner, noun, determiner, noun, determiner, noun, verb, verb, verb. It’s still a grammatical sentence. The only requirements for something to be a sentence is a verb and a subject.  Everything else is optional. There’s really no discussion to be had when it comes to this. What I disagreed with the professor on, was the fact that he said the sentence was nonsensical, but it made sense to me.

It’s not structured like any kind of utterance I would make in conversation, but but I spent a few minutes looking at it, alongside other sentences on a sheet of paper we’d been given for homework. We were supposed to pick out which ones were grammatical, ungrammatical, which ones made sense, and which ones didn’t. There were all sorts of combinations on there. Grammatical and understandable. Grammatical and nonsensical. Ungrammatical and understandable. Ungrammatical and nonsensical. The rat the cat the dog chased caught died, according to my professor, was grammatical but nonsensical, because no one could possibly find any kind of meaning in those words put together in that order. The problem, though, is that I did.

I exchanged about 2 sentences with the professor about this. I’d been taught by him before, he’d given a couple of lectures I attended my first year. He was not the kind of man who would change his mind because a 20-year-old girl told him she disagreed. He told me to just accept it as a nonsensical sentence. I didn’t push any further. But here’s the thing: That was five and a half years ago, and I haven’t forgotten about this sentence since, and as time has gone on, I haven’t changed my mind, either. I can’t put the sentence into a tree structure, the way we were taught to analyse sentences. Not for lack of trying; I tried, multiple times. But it doesn’t work out the way they want the structures to work out. I can put it into my own kind of structure, but it doesn’t look like what they wanted our binary tree structures to look like. But it doesn’t matter, the sentence was never brought up again past this one 10am lecture that particular Friday morning in early September 2013.

I said I haven’t changed my mind. I said the sentence makes sense to me. And now I will attempt to explain it to you. The rat the cat the dog chased caught died.

The sentence has three nouns: rat, cat, dog.

The sentence has three verbs: chased, caught, died.

My proposition to you, is that each of these verbs belongs to a separate noun. And not in any random order: In reverse order. The first noun gets the last verb. The middle noun gets the middle verb. The last noun gets the first verb. The sentence is about three events: a rat dying, a cat catching, and a dog chasing.

The rat died. Which rat? It was the rat that the cat caught. But which cat? It was the cat that the dog was chasing. There was a dog that was chasing a cat which was catching a rat, which died. The rat the cat the dog chased caught died. All this sentence does, is specify which rat, and which cat. Ultimately, the sentence is about what happened to a very specific rat. The rat the cat caught. But maybe there were multiple cats catching rats, at that specific moment. To specify which rat it was that died, we need to specify which cat that was doing the catching. It was the cat that the dog was chasing. And if there was only one dog present in the scenario, then we know which rat that died. The rat that was caught by the cat that was chased by the dog. The rat the cat the dog chased caught died.

Let us go back to Chomsky’s sentence, colourless green ideas sleep furiously; if we google that and go to pictures, we get multiple variations of this:

colourless green ideas sleep furiously

It’s a tree structure that proves that even though the sentence is nonsensical it is, in fact, grammatically correct. If we google the rat the cat the dog chased caught died, we get pictures of cats and dogs and rats, and a fox, and a crocodile (or alligator, I can’t tell them apart). I did, after some scrolling however, come across this:

largepreview

Read the first sentence of the abstract. “Why is it impossible to process The rat the cat the dog chased ate died?” Impossible to process. Impossible. To process. That’s what they say it is. I have no doubt that this is a proper scientific study. I’ve read many of them, just not on this subject. Richard Hudson is a proper linguist. Not one I’ve heard of until now, but still. I’m sure he’s contributed to his field in his 79 years. And he’s not the only one to claim that the sentence is difficult to process, that it doesn’t make sense. But the problem here is that it makes sense to me. It isn’t impossible to process for me. Yes, one of the verbs is different, but I don’t think it makes much difference here; the paper is about self-embedded structures, and my professor used “caught”, not “ate”, and to most people I don’t think the sentence would make much more sense with one verb over the other.

I don’t think I’m anything special. I often put myself down. I’ve been put down by others for as long as I can remember. For my clothes, my body, my looks, my choices regarding makeup, music… and also for my brain, because I was good in school and the teachers liked me. Do I think I am smart? Yes. I’ve been a bookworm my entire life. I love to learn things. Am I, at times, socially inept and awkward (sorry, Amelie, I just love this expression so much, I just had to use it, but you said it first!)? Also yes. But I don’t think there’s anything about me that makes me any more special than anyone else. But I don’t find this sentence impossible to process. If it had been impossible to process, how was I able to make sense of it?

Or was I wrong in stating that it does not make a difference whether the second verb is “caught” or “ate” like the article does? Is that what makes all the difference in whether the sentence is possible to process? Is the rat the cat the dog chased caught died processable, while the rat the cat the dog chased ate died is not, because it is impossible for the cat to eat the rat at the same time as the rat stays alive? My explanation would not work with the verb being “ate”, because if multiple cats were eating rats, you cannot use the dog chasing one of the cats to pinpoint which rat died, because presumably they all did… In which case, does the fault (dear Brutus… no, I won’t get started) lie with my professor, who presented us with a sentence using the incorrect verb in the first place?

So many questions, so few answers! Let’s talk in the comments below!

Xoxo

Julie

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From Gryffindor to Ravenclaw but really about Change

When I joined Pottermore a few years ago, I was very excited to join my Hogwarts house. All the tests I’d taken online had been so predictable, and all the answers to all the questions were written in a way so that you could easily see which statement belonged to which house, and you could really just pick and get the house you wanted regardless of your true answer to the question. But on Pottermore it was different. I was torn between wanting Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, having always seen myself as a clever person and a sort of Hermione myself, whom the sorting hat had seriously considered putting in Ravenclaw. I was happy when I got Gryffindor, feeling like it confirmed my feelings of being Hermione-like.

A friend of mine from Twitter is a Slytherin, and we have often talked about how Slytherins have been stereotyped as mean and bad people. I assure you, that is not the case. She is one of the sweetest people I know. But trust me – she will stand up for herself. And her house. When I purchased a necklace of Ravenclaw’s diadem late last year, she told me she always thought of me as a Ravenclaw, even though I was sorted into Gryffindor. I had only gotten the necklace because I found it beautiful, and I already had the time turner, deathly hallows, and wands.

The other day when I was in university one of my friends went on Pottermore and got resorted. Like me, she had been a Gryffindor from the start. Now, however, she was sorted into Ravenclaw. Being a person who is a lot like me, she was happy with this. We both value wisdom and knowledge and cleverness.

This made me curious. Would I still be a Gryffindor if I were to be resorted now? Or would I be something else? I feel like I have changed a lot over the past few years. Naturally, as I’ve gone from being a girl in her late teens to a woman in her mid twenties, I’ve grown. I’m a different person now. I’ve changed.

And this got me thinking. If I’ve changed in a few years, what’s to stop people from changing in many years? Just because someone was sorted into a house when they were 11, who’s to say they wouldn’t be sorted into a different house if they were to be resorted at 20, or 30, or even later in life? Everyone in the Harry Potter universe seem very true to the personality traits of the houses they were sorted into as kids, but is it not possible to change completely in a few or many years? Personally, I may not have changed that much. Perhaps I was always close to being a Ravenclaw. Much like Hermione. Perhaps I’ve just developed, rather than drastically changed. But there are people who do change drastically, over shorter or longer time, and I was just wondering… What about them?

A Note On Love

I’ve spent a great part of my life thinking that, you shouldn’t love someone who doesn’t or can’t love you back. My reason for this is quite natural: it only ends up hurting you. However, over the past several months, I’ve come to realize that I don’t quite like this anymore. And therefore, I wanted to share something with my readers, wherever you are, whatever your situation is, whether you’re in a happy loving relationship or you love someone you can’t have or you think you can’t love anymore because the last person you loved left you in pieces.

Love. Love everyone. Love all the time. Don’t let past experiences make you hard. Don’t let the world make you empty. Let yourself love people. Even if they don’t love you. Only love can fill the cracks and holes caused by loneliness, rejection, and betrayal. Only love can make us whole again. Maybe they can’t because they don’t know how to. Show them. Spread love everywhere you go. Leave pieces of yourself with everyone you meet. Love without the aim of being loved bad. Just love.

“Love until your heart gives out.” (writingsforwinter)

Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to love. Cercei Lannister was wrong; loving people doesn’t make you weak. It opens you up and makes you different but it does not make you weak. Love is not weakness. Love is strength.

Give your all or give nothing. Devote yourself completely. Love with all you have and all that you are. Just love. When your love is rejected, do not dwell. Give more love, give love to someone else, to everyone else, Leave love everywhere. Love because you know what it feels like to be loved. Love because of what it feels like to love someone.

Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you.

No, do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions, no strings attached, no wondering whether or not they’re worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love isn’t about what you gain, it’s about what you give. Tell people you love them. Not to hear it back or to get anything out of it. Tell people you love them to make sure they know you do.

I am a firm believer in that only love can mend a broken heart. Love will make your heart soft. Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness. Bukowski said, how can you say you love one person when there are ten thousand people in the world that you would love more if you ever met them?

And when your heart breaks… Fill all the cracks with love. Love people, romantically or otherwise. And if you can’t do that yet, fall in love with things. Fall in love with music. Fall in love with hobbies. Love. Until you’re able to love again. Love until your cracks become scars that eventually fade completely. Love until you become whole again.

Just a thought about validation

People. Myself as well as others. We very often need validation from other people to feel okay with being who we are. And that really sucks. I know from experience that when I don’t hear from people for a few days I start to think I must not be interesting enough or important enough to them, otherwise we would have spoken. Constantly needing confirmation and reassurance that people want you in their life is exhausting. Not only do you feel like they may not want you in their life, but when this happens with many people at the same time you also start to feel incredibly lonely and abandoned.

Writing the word “abandoned” just now made me think of abandoned buildings and train tracks and things left in forests. You’ve probably seen “abandoned places” accounts on twitter for example. I always thought that they were beautiful and interesting. And perhaps that is the case with humans too? We can still be beautiful and interesting even though people don’t talk to us all the time. I think maybe that’s a way I need to try to start thinking on days like today…

– Julie 

How We Should Protect Ourselves (but never do)

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
– 
Holden, The Catcher in the Rye

Personally, I have a twist on this quote, an idea I would like to share with you. Something I wish I was more capable of controlling myself. It goes like this:

Don’t ever think anything about anybody. If you do, you start missing everybody.

What I mean about this is… As people, when we get to know other people, we start thinking things. Imagining things. Creating scenarios in our heads that the people are a part of. It’s all good and well so far. We’re aware that they’re just daydreams and imaginations, they’re not real. But the people are. These imaginations and scenarios are things we want to do with these people. Things that maybe someday will happen. Conversations we’ll maybe have, someday. Places we’ll maybe go to. All good and well so far.

The problem with this, I propose to you, goes something like this: those people aren’t real either. They are our imagined versions of these people. How we want them to be. The things we want them to say. Things we imagine maybe someday they will actually say. We know them, we know how they talk and behave, and all we do is take this a step furter and create situations in our heads. Correction: All we think we do. But something else happens, that we may or may not be aware of. We begin to apply the imagined version to the real person. We look for traits in the real people that fit the fantasy. We begin to believe that the imaginary version is the real person. But they’re not.

People, sooner or later, in one way or another, will let you down. They’ll say or do or be something that doesn’t fit with the imagination. They’ll shatter the illusion. Naturally, we blame them. “This isn’t who you are, you’ve changed, you’ve never been like this before” we might say. It’s their fault. They don’t fit the version that we’ve created. The version WE’VE created. We. Us. I. The individual. Our mind. We are to blame. We created the imaginary version of the real person. We are to blame, not the person. They never promised to be this or do that or say a certain thing. We expected them to because the made-up version of them did. But the actual person never agreed to being who the imagined version them are.

We let ourselves down. We lead ourselves on. We break our own hearts. The person didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t do anythign at all. They just weren’t how you made them out to be in your head. And that’s your fault, my fault, each our own fault, and not the person’s fault. We hurt ourselves. If we didn’t do this, we’d be more protected. But it’s impossible not to. We can’t fight what’s inside of us. Well sometimes we can, but fighting ourselves is the most unnatural thing in the world because we are everything that we are. Maybe. Not necessarily. Other sides of this can be argued (think: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are”). But if you drag that statement into this it becomes a matter of distinguishing right from wrong and knowing the difference. What I propose is that imagining scenarios and creating versions of people is on the light side, the right side, we don’t see anything wrong with it, which is why it’s unnatural to fight this part of who we are.

Before I lose my point completely: the last part of my twist on the famous sentence from the famous book taught in most high school literature classes. If you do, you start missing everybody. People turn out not to be how we imagined them, how we wanted them to be. When we find this out, we have to come to terms with that. Accept that they’re not who we thought they were. And that isn’t necessarily easy. You may feel like you’ve been lied to (by the person, but really by your head). If you can come to terms with who they are, who the REAL person is, then maybe you can have a wonderful friendship (or relationship or whatever it is that you might have). But if you can’t, you’ll probably end up not having anything to do with them. And you may find yourself missing them. But you don’t miss the real person, you miss the imaginations, the fantasies, the daydreams, about the person you have by this point discovered doesn’t exist. Holding on to those is hard to do once you know the person isn’t like that. So you end up missing them, too.

Don’t ever think anything about anybody. If you do, you start missing everybody.

This entry was inspired by this tumblr post.

~ Julie