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A friend of mine shared an image macro that contained this block of text, claiming it is grammatically correct.

This exceeding trifling witling, considering ranting criticizing concerning adopting fitting wording being exhibiting transcending learning, was displaying, notwithstanding ridiculing, surpassing boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing, and touching detecting deceiving arguing during debating.

Is this really the case? If so, does it really mean anything, or is it just a bunch of meaningless words sewn together to conform to English language rules?

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In terms of meaning, "This" is never defined, so the meaning is relatively lacking. –  Sam Jun 26 '13 at 23:13
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This is one of those instances where someone put a lot of thought and effort into creating an English anomaly. I'd wager it is grammatically correct, but it would take considerable effort to decipher it. It wasn't really intended to mean anything per se – if someone really wanted to convey this sentiment in language, they would rearrange it considerably, and change the wording. You can probably find someone who took the time to parse it, if you peruse these links. –  J.R. Jun 27 '13 at 0:11
    
@Sam: This refers to witling - archaic, a person who thinks himself witty. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '13 at 0:55
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I think J.R. has it right. It appears to be as great a violation of the Doubl-ing Constraint as can be done. Bravo! As to grammaticality, a parser can generally find dozens of grammatical but ridiculous parses for any written sentence, since the intonation isn'r represented, so I don't even want to think about grammaticality. What it is is meaningless as a sentence, rather like "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", which is certainly grammatical. –  John Lawler Jun 28 '13 at 14:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This sentence was written by Goold Brown in his The Grammar of English Grammars, published in 1851. The full text of the book can be found here. I tried wading through the more relevant sections.

In his observation 17 on rule 4 of his chapter 2, "Articles" (yes, that is how the book is structured), Mr. Brown, among many other things, states that

Because, without this mongrel character, the participle in our language has a multiplicity of uses unparalleled in any other; and because it seldom happens that the idea intended by this double construction may not be otherwise expressed more elegantly.

However, his love of participles was not without its limits for he took care to explain, in his observation 3 on rule 20 of the same chapter, that the participle can indeed be overused:

One may run to great excess in the adoption of such derivatives [the participles], without becoming absolutely unintelligible, and without violating any rule of our common grammars. For example, I may say of somebody, "This very superficial grammatist, supposing empty criticism about the adoption of proper phraseology to be a show of extraordinary erudition, was displaying, in spite of ridicule, a very boastful turgid argument concerning the correction of false syntax, and about the detection of false logic in debate." Now, in what other language than ours, can a string of words anything like the following, come so near to a fair and literal translation of this long sentence? "This exceeding trifling witling, considering ranting criticising concerning adopting fitting wording being exhibiting transcending learning, was displaying, notwithstanding ridiculing, surpassing boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing, and touching detecting deceiving arguing during debating." Here are not all the uses to which our writers apply the participle in ing, but there would seem to be enough, without adding others that are less proper.

So, the sentence was cooked up by a 19th century grammarian to make the point that use of the present participle can lead to confusing sentences. It is therefore probably grammatical, at the very least according to the 19th century grammar espoused by Mr. Brown.

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I think the witling = grammatist assertion is not meant to fall under the definition of witling, but the ‘translator’ is saying that this particular witling happens to be a grammatist, as deduced by the context of the rest of the sentence. After all, who else would be "ranting criticizing concerning adopting fitting wording" or "boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing," besides a grammatist? –  J.R. Jun 27 '13 at 0:42
    
@J.R. fair enough, I guess that using grammatist is clearer than fool or similar near synonyms. –  terdon Jun 27 '13 at 0:44
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Maybe it's just me, but whereas I can (just about) get my head around all the other "borderline" usages in this sentence, I can't get my inner grammarian to parse the 12th word sensibly. To me, the only way it works is with as being, or to be, not simply being. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '13 at 0:52
    
@FumbleFingers I think it should be read in a similar vein to speaking Latin at the dinner table is being pompous. I agree it is stretching it though. –  terdon Jun 27 '13 at 1:06
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@FumbleFingers I think the difference is considering. I could say Considering latin being pompous, he was unimpressed by Sam. I'd rather not, and I would have the good grace to wince but I'd call it grammatical. Don't get me wrong, I'm just playing devil's advocate here, the sentence is as horrible as it was meant to be. It just doesn't break any "rules" that I know. –  terdon Jun 27 '13 at 2:16

Explained on allThingsLinguistic:

This sentence takes advantage of the versatile English –ing. The author of a 19th century grammar guide lamented the fact that one could “run to great excess" in the use of –ing participles “without violating any rule of our common grammars," and constructed this sentence to prove it. It doesn’t seem so complicated once you realize it means,

"This very superficial grammatist, supposing empty criticism about the adoption of proper phraseology to be a show of extraordinary erudition, was displaying, in spite of ridicule, a very boastful turgid argument concerning the correction of false syntax, and about the detection of false logic in debate."

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