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I was reading about "Center embedding" in Wikipedia and am now interested whether this process of embedding a phrase in the middle of another phrase of the same type is used in modern English?

  • A man that a woman loves
  • A man that a woman that a child knows loves
  • A man that a woman that a child that a bird saw knows loves
  • A man that a woman that a child that a bird that I heard saw knows loves

I am concerned with the difference between these two examples of center embedding:

  • My brother opened the window the maid had closed
  • A man that a woman that a child knows loves

The first can be easily understood by placing "that" before "the maid" (My brother opened the window that the maid had closed) and there's a reduced relative clause used here while the first sentence cannot be understood. There are two verbs at the end that don't make sense.

  • What have you concluded after reading the first couple of sentences in that article? Do you have trouble with comprehension, or do you refuse to believe the linguists' comments and research? – userr2684291 Jun 29 '17 at 13:07
  • @userr2684291 It's just the first one can't be correct and if we look at the second example then the first should be written as, "A man who is loved by a woman whom a child knows." – SovereignSun Jun 29 '17 at 13:10
  • What's the first and what's the second example in your question? By the way, the examples from Wikipedia are obviously correct: "A man that a woman that a child knows loves [is called John]." and "My brother opened the window the maid had closed." – userr2684291 Jun 29 '17 at 13:17
  • Also, what you're doing is unwarrantedly recasting the sentence into a passive one. There's a difference between "A woman loves a man." and "A man is loved by a woman." Consequently, you'll have to adjust the sentence to its new structure. – userr2684291 Jun 29 '17 at 13:29
  • Such embedding can quickly become ridiculous. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 29 '17 at 21:17
1

Considering these two sentences:

  1. My brother opened the window the maid had closed
  2. A man that a woman that a child knows loves

The key point mentioned in the Wikipedia article that makes #1 easy to understand and #2 difficult to understand is the common subject (referred to as a "common category" on Wikipedia, but I'm not sure "category" is an intuitive label in this case).

In #1, both the brother and the maid are acting on the window.

In #2, you've got verbs referring to different subjects. The child knows the woman, but the woman loves the man; and to make matters worse, we didn't even finish talking about the woman before we started talking about the child. That's confusing.


As mentioned in the article, these sentences are theoretically grammatical (and my instinct as a native speaker is to agree), but they're not generally acceptable – i.e., to answer your question about whether they're used in modern English: no, they're not – because they're confusing!

Still, if we try really hard (and I do mean really hard – I had to read that last sentence like 25 times), we can figure out what is going on in

A man that a woman that a child that a bird that I heard saw knows loves.

  • A woman loves a man
  • A child knows the woman
  • A bird saw the child
  • I heard the bird

The sentence could be recast like this:

I heard a bird, which saw a child, who knows a woman, who loves a man.

  • Your last sentence doesn't comply with the 4 previous statements. – SovereignSun Jun 30 '17 at 6:26
  • 1
    Sorry about that. A bird saw the child. Hope that makes more sense now. – cjl750 Jun 30 '17 at 14:54

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