Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for May 2nd, 2021

Cream paintbrush

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Most Indian paintbrushes (Castilleja indivisa) are red, like the one in the backround in this picture from the town of Manor on April 20th. Occasionally a paintbrush is yellowish or cream or white, like the one in the foreground here that is the real subject of the portrait.

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Two days ago I posed an English language challenge: to come up with a sentence containing the words adopted finished stirred. The three words had to appear exactly that way, with no punctuation or other words in between, and the full sentence had to be grammatical. That seems like a difficult task, and no takers have come forward. (This is primarily a nature photography blog, after all.)

Languages allow for the nesting, i.e. embedding or insertion, of one sentence inside another. With that in mind, let’s begin with three simple sentences, each containing one of the verbs in the challenge (I’ve italicized those verbs).

1: The book stirred emotions.
2: The girl finished the book.
3: The family adopted the girl.

Now let’s nest 2 inside 1 as a way of including what we know about the book:

2 inside 1: The book that the girl finished stirred emotions. (Notice how stirred now immediately follows finished. Do you see where this is going?)

Now let’s nest 3 inside the nested combination of 1 and 2 as a way of including what else we know about the girl:

3 inside 2 inside 1: The book that the girl that the family adopted finished stirred emotions.

Grouping symbols make the nesting structure clear:

The book [ that the girl [[ that the family adopted ]] finished ] stirred emotions.

If you drop what’s inside the double brackets, what’s left makes sense. Likewise, if you drop everything that’s inside the single brackets, what’s left makes sense.

There’s no theoretical limit to how many levels of nesting you can have, but even with just the two levels of nesting in our final sentence, comprehension begins to falter as verbs pile up toward the end of the combined version.

For example, suppose we add just one more sentence to the original three:

4: The senator visited the family.

Nesting that inside what we already had gives us:

4 inside 3 inside 2 inside 1: The book that the girl that the family that the senator visited adopted finished stirred emotions.

I doubt whether even German speakers, who have a head start by often putting two verbs together at the end of a sentence, could follow this.

In fact the sentence could be even more opaque. Through a peculiarity of English, we’re not obliged to include that when it’s the object of the following verb. For example:

2 inside 1: The book the girl finished was long.

If we suppress every such that in a sentence with multiple levels of nesting, not only do verbs pile up toward the end, but noun phrases pile up at the beginning:

4 inside 3 inside 2 inside 1: The book the girl the family the senator visited adopted finished stirred emotions.

Try reading that out loud to someone, even slowly, and I’m pretty sure the person won’t understand it. What fun!

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 2, 2021 at 4:33 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

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