Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


From today’s Guardian:

The BBC pulled a planned exposé of Sun on Sunday journalist Mazher Mahmood, after a last-minute intervention from his lawyers…

I had great difficulty parsing this sentence. On the first go, my grammar module pegged “Sun” as the object of the exposé (but why not “The Sun”?), Sunday as a date — possibly the planned date of broadcast, or when the broadcast was cancelled — and journalist Mazher Mahmood presumably someone involved in the exposé or in announcing the cancellation — but then why did the clause end there? It all could have been made clear if Sun on Sunday had been put in italics.

I am reminded of a section in Steven Pinker’s book Words and Rules (I think he’s the best popular writer on linguistics — alas he tends to embarrass himself when tempted to write on other topics) where he describes “garden path sentences” — sentences that seem ungrammatical because of the way one is first inclined to parse them. The odd thing is that an informational context can make them grammatical, albeit awkward. For example

The horse raced past the barn fell.

Like the horse, the reader stumbles at the end. “Fell” looks like it’s just an excess verb tacked on. But it seems like a perfectly well-formed sentence if it is extended to

The horse raced past the barn fell. The horse walked past the barn proceeded safely.

Comments on: "Journalist investigated to prove perjury exposed" (4)

  1. My innate sense of grammar might differ from yours, but both sentences are incomprehensible to me; separately or together. “The horse /THAT/ raced past the barn fell.” isn’t. Maybe there’s a better example.

  2. A change of tense makes both comprehensible, too: ”The horse racing past the barn fell.”

    • You’re misreading it. “Raced” is transitive here. Thus the extra phrase is supposed to nudge the listener to parse the sentence as “The horse [that an impatient trainer] raced past the barn fell.”

  3. Agonistes said:

    Got it. “Cafe trains learning disabled people for work”

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