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The brain must be provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions.

I am not so sure about this one, but my instinct tells me that " to force it out of predictable perceptions " goes with "the brain must be provided with something " instead of the relative clause "that it has never before processed".

If my assumption is right, consider this sentence,

The students are provided with some tips that they can use to win the competition.

I think the sentence structure is similar to the first one, but the infinitive clause goes with the relative clause "that they can use" instead of " The students are provided with some tips".

These two sentences have similar structures, but the infinitive goes with or modifies different parts of the sentence(one with the main clause, and the other with the relative clause which the infinitive is closer to).

What causes the difference and how can it be explained?

  • The difference is simply the extent to which alternative parsings make sense (the "relative pragmatics"). Nothing to do with the syntax as such. If you thought the brain habitually processes information specifically in order to "force it out of predictable perceptions", that would obviously affect your interpretation of the text. But most people probably know that the brain is inherently "lazy" - it invariably tries to "massage / misinterpret" new information so it fits established patterns, rather than make (potentially, serious) efforts to expand, modify, or abandon preconceived ideas. – FumbleFingers Feb 6 at 18:50
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Often, in complex sentences, there are multiple possible parsings, and one has to choose among them using various cues. In the first example, the word "must" encourages seeing that phrase "be provided with something that it has never before processed" as being directed towards a goal, and "force it out of predictable perceptions" makes sense that goal, while it doesn't make sense as a goal of the processing. Furthermore "the brain" remains the recipient of the action in the phrase "force it out" (the object of the verb of "force" is "it", which refers to "the brain"), which supports the interpretation that this is a goal of whatever agent is providing the "something", rather than a goal of the processing.

In your second example, however, "the students" are the subject of the verb "win". They are not the recipients of the verb "win", they are the performers. This supports the interpretation that "win the competition" is a goal of the students, not the agent that is providing them with tips, and thus it applies to "they can use", which also has the students as subjects, rather than "The students are provided", which has them as objects (well, technically, they are the subjects, but that's only because it's in passive voice). Presumably, the people providing them with tips aren't the ones winning the competition, so it doesn't make sense to interpret "to win" as applying to "The students are provided".

So it's just a matter of looking at the sentence as a whole and looking and making logical deductions. There's no simple rule. As a writer, one can reduce this sort of ambiguity through rewording or use of punctuation, such as parentheses.

  • Thank you for providing the answer, for the first sentence, if "must be" is replaced with "is". >The brain is provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions. Does it make any difference? – 黃冠霖 Feb 7 at 2:00

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