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:
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:
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!