118

Is "women men girls love meet die" a valid sentence? If so, what does it mean?

The sentence shows up in academic papers about the "Sausage Machine" for natural language processing. (A google will show up several results referring to this).

The general comment is:

(130) # Women men girls love meet die.

Frazier & Fodor predict that a sentence like (130) should be easy to process since it can be analyzed entirely by the first stage processor. That is, all six words of the sentence can be seen at the same time and hence the grammar should assign these words the appropriate structure. This prediction is clearly wrong, since sentences like (130) are at least as hard as sentences like (127)

From: this PhD Thesis

It doesn't seem to make sense. But from the context it is being used as a counter example of a sentence that is difficult (but not impossible) to understand, which some systems (The "Sausage Machine") fail to interpret. Which means it must be interpretable in the first place (unless I am misunderstanding the context).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 12 '17 at 14:25

19 Answers 19

64

The particular sentence is a poor attempt at making an example of a sentence that is both grammatical but very difficult to process because of the multiple center embedding.

Spelled out the sentence is supposed to mean:

Women (that men (that girls love) meet) die"

or

"Some girls love some men. Those men met some women. Those women died".

To make it more understandable, just look at one embedding at a time ("Women men meet die." "Men girls love meet women.").

All these are legal (grammatical) transformations. But juggling all the references leads to the difficulty in processing by a person.

A more intuitive example (makes more intuitive sense once separated all out) is:

"The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped"

which expands more understandably to

"A dog bit a cat. That cat chased a rat. The rat escaped."

Presumably the sausage machine model allows easy processing of such center embedded sentences, so the inference is that the sausage machine is not the best model of processing that actual human brains do.

  • 12
    Why do you call this a "poor attempt"? It seems to be pretty clear both how to assign structure to the sentence and also that it is impossible to comprehend without doing so. It was the goal of the author to produce such a sentence. "The rat the cat the dog..." is no more understandable without a similar breakdown. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 23 '15 at 18:44
  • 19
    @WinnieNicklaus Oh. I didn't make that clear. It is poor because 'loves' and 'meet' and 'dies' don't really say anything meaningful about men women and girls (they could have just as easily used three other nouns and verbs). Is there something about these men that the girls love? Why did the women meet them and why did they die? Seems like a strange and empty story. But for the rat, cat, and dog, it all makes sense. Of course any 3 nouns and verbs should fit the pattern, but with the rat, cat, and dog the phenomenon is easier to elucidate. – Mitch Mar 23 '15 at 21:42
  • 1
    Hmm, I agree that the "die" part is jarring and doesn't really make sense. There are certainly men that girls love. These men presumably often meet women -- assuming here that we're distinguishing "women" from "girls". Up to that point it looks like we are moving toward a coherent meaning, something about what happens when mature women meet men who are loved by young girls. But they die? That doesn't seem to make sense. In this sense I think I agree that the sentence is poorly constructed. It would be more effective to show that a sentence that, if successfully parsed, makes complete ... – Jay Mar 25 '15 at 13:36
  • 1
    ... sense, is nevertheless difficult to understand. Once you introduce elements into the sentence that don't make sense, you create an entirely different issue: Is the sentence difficult to understand because we expect sentences to be rational and coherent and so we stumble over the illogic? Or is the sentence difficult to understand because of the "layered" construction? If I said, "Orange Sally is fast", you'd likely stumble over the meaning for entirely different reasons. It doesn't make sense, so you struggle to extract meaning, even though the grammar is simple and straightforward. – Jay Mar 25 '15 at 13:40
  • 3
    Making the sentence syntactically valid yet semantically absurd does have the effect of throwing people off even more. "Cheese rats cats chase eat smells" might be marginally easier to parse to some people because your brain more naturally matches "rats" with "eat", "cheese" with "smells", and so on. At a stretch. – Jack M Mar 25 '15 at 22:57
92

There's a nursery rhyme that starts like this:

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that chased the rat
That ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

and continues in a similar vein. We might imagine the following conversation.

A Oh, that was a nice cheese I sold to Jack the other day!

B Which cheese?

A The cheese the rat ate!

B Oh, OK. Hang on, which rat?

A The rat the cat chased, of course!

B Ah, so you're talking about the cheese the rat the cat chased ate, then?

A Um, what...?

B Well, you said it was the cheese the rat ate, right?

A Yes...

B The rat the cat chased?

A That's what I said.

B So it's the cheese pause the rat the cat chased pause ate!

A Haha, OK, I suppose so, but it doesn't sound right!

B Which cat is this, then?

A sigh...

The conversation continues in a similar way, until eventually...

B So you're talking about

the cheese
  the rat 
    the cat 
      the dog
        the cow tossed 
      worried
    chased
  ate

then?

A ???!!?

If we're going to use the full nursery rhyme, then the cheese in question is actually

The cheese the rat the cat the dog the cow the maiden the man the judge the cock the farmer owned woke married kissed milked tossed worried chased ate!

If that doesn't make sense to you, then don't worry - it shouldn't, if you're human! But it really is an interesting fact that this sentence doesn't appear to make sense. In contrast to what Mr Blow keeps saying, it really is not 'just that simple'. The strange thing is that while the individual parts

the cheese the rat ate
the rat the cat chased
the cat the dog worried
the dog the cow tossed

all make sense, we can't paste them together using logical rules and arrive at an understandable sentence. This is surprising: normally, we could replace the phrase the cheese in the sentence

The cheese was delicious.

with the cheese the rat ate to arrive at

The cheese the rat ate was delicious.

and we can make as many such substitutions as we like, so

The maiden bought the cheese from the judge.

becomes

The maiden the man kissed bought the cheese the rat ate from the judge the cock woke.

which, though clumsy, still makes perfect sense. It's only when we start to introduce defining clauses within defining clauses that our usual substitution rules stop giving us sentences which we can process.

It is a peculiar limitation of the human brain, not a formal rule of language, that means that the phrase

the cheese the rat ate

makes perfect sense, the phrase

the cheese the rat the cat chased ate

can be understood, but only with difficulty, and the longer phrases above look like complete gobbledegook.

87

The sentence is clearly concocted to show the practical limits in the depth to which our natural ability to parse sentences applies recursively. (That one was not quite as bad.) Language allows sentences to be modified by adding some auxiliary phrases, or replacing some part by a more elaborate construct playing the same role in the context, and it would be hard to state a clear theoretical limit on how far one can go with this; however, obviously things become incomprehensible in practice at some point.

In the example the possibility to omit clarifying words and punctuation is abused to obtain a very short but hard to decipher result. Though of course not proper English, I think the following shows the structure of construction of this sentence most clearly.

Women (, [that] men (,[whom] girls love,) meet,) die.

If I had to restate the sentence for better transparency by just inserting some optional elements, I would state it as

Women, that men whom girls love meet, die.

Still not a beautiful sentence, but marginally comprehensible.

  • 4
    Unfortunately, your transformed sentence now says something completely different because the relative clause has become an unrestrictive one implying that all women are as described, while the original did not. – user21820 Mar 23 '15 at 14:35
  • 5
    @user21820: If it really bugs you, and if you find the result more readable, you may take out the comma that precedes "that". I indicated the restrictive use of the clause is by using "that" rather than "which" there, though I am aware that opinions differ on this point. My commas are used just to mark a pause and delimit that clause, and I'll do that when I feel it helps reading a sentence, regardless of any grammatical rules. – Marc van Leeuwen Mar 23 '15 at 15:06
  • 20
    +1 for getting the whole point of the sentence, which was not to express the thought most clearly but to demonstrate a fact about our language faculties. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 23 '15 at 18:53
  • 2
    Interestingly, if the inner-most noun of such a three-level embedding is I, then the sentence can be quite readable. The cars people I hate drive are loud. – Lynn Feb 28 '16 at 17:03
75

I would have no theoretical (as opposed to practical) problem with this sentence:

The woman [that] the man [that] the girl loved had met [last week] died [earlier today].

But to me a crucial break in coherence occurs in the sentence

The woman the man the girl loved met died.

because here the author tries to make met stand in for had met, forcing readers to make sense of past actions that clearly have different moments of occurrence and durations, without providing cues that the sentence's author could have used to clarify the sequence of actions described. Notably, the man presumably met the woman before the woman died, so the author really has no excuse to obfuscate that point by rendering both the meeting and the dying in simple past.

Switching now to the all-simple-present iteration of the sentence—

Women men girls love meet die.

—we have to accommodate the oddly definitional sense of the sentence, to grasp its meaning:

Women [that] men [that] girls love [happen to] meet [must] die.

If you were actually trying to convey the sense of that sentence intelligibly, I think you would probably frame it in terms less like the original and more like this:

Women who meet men that girls love are sure to die.

(As, of course, is everyone else.)

I hesitated to answer this question because I'm not much interested in it as an exercise in structural logic. But it seems to me that the only grounds on which one can claim that "Women men girls love meet die" is "a valid sentence" is by quarantining validity a considerable distance away from any commonsense approach to sentence construction and interpretation that would normally guide a speaker seeking to be understood and a listener trying to understand.

It may be that a heavily armed analyst can justify a bad sentence like the OP's under some strained or mechanistic parsing of its components; but in my view (and invoking the traditional wisdom of Flannery O'Connor), a speaker with a good sentence don't need to be justified.

  • 6
    It looks like a German sentence, with all the verbs stacked at the end. Pulling out 'men girls love' as a noun-phrase X results in 'women X meet die' which is fairly intelligible. – android.weasel Mar 23 '15 at 11:44
  • 5
    I don't see why the 'shift' from pluperfect to past breaks the sentence for you. The simple past seems both a simpler and more natural choice to me: getting rid of the second relative clause for simplicity, “The woman (whom) the man met (last week, at the party, whatever), died (later on, at some point)” is perfectly natural and fine to me. More so than “had met” would be in most contexts I can think of. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 23 '15 at 13:28
  • 64
    Anyone who objects to the sentence because it is incomprehensible (or "completely silly BS") is missing the point entirely. What the sentence demonstrates is that the application of simple, common rules of gramar can result in constructions that we can't parse, which tells us something about our language faculties. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 23 '15 at 18:53
  • 13
    Please note that the OP asks two (and only two) specific questions : "Is 'women men girls love meet die' a valid sentence? If so, what does it mean?" My answer attempts to respond to the question of validity, first by trying to identify the sentence's meaning and second by addressing (very briefly) the issue of what "validity" means in the context of human communication. I am not offended by the sentence, nor do I think it is impossible to parse (with a lot of effort); but I do think that a sentence's resistance to comprehension has a bearing on its validity as communication. – Sven Yargs Mar 23 '15 at 19:50
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    @SvenYargs The OP also adds parenthetically "Unless I am misunderstanding the context". The OP is indeed misunderstanding the context, so the first point of business should be correcting that -- the author presents the sentence as a counterexample to a theory which predicts it should be easy to understand. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 23 '15 at 21:52
21

These are six words that have been carefully selected to match grammatical rules while being incomprehensible to a human being. They are a puzzle that can be solved (as some of the answers show).

Grammatical rules should reflect the reality of the language. The reality of the English language is that if the complexity of a sentence is too high, it cannot be understood. A perfect grammar would include this reality in its rules. With a sentence like this, the perfect grammar rules would not just say how words can be combined into sentences, but how each combination increases complexity, and what complexity is unacceptable. To me, this sentence is beyond acceptable complexity and therefore not valid.

Since we rarely use complex sentences like this, those people who write down grammatical rules don't care much about this. And if I wanted to communicate the contents of the sentence, I might write

"Women die, whom men meet, whom girls love"

assuming that correct grammar is less important than writing a sentence that can be understood. Or better

"When girls love men, and those men meet women, then the women die".

  • 1
    I like your characterization of this as a puzzle. Your opinion of a "perfect grammar" seems not very carefully thought out... or actually, I guess what's bothering me is you don't take the context of the sentence into account as well as some of the other answers do. Still, I think it's a useful perspective! – sumelic Mar 24 '15 at 7:20
  • Gah, I accidentally flagged this answer. Mods, please ignore the flag. – user867 Mar 24 '15 at 23:38
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    Well, a "perfect grammar" would be operationally defined as one that accepts any valid English sentence an rejects any invalid one, and we decide what is valid and what is not valid. Since nobody can understand this sentence, it is not valid. Writing down the rules for the "perfect grammar" is not easy. – gnasher729 Mar 25 '15 at 12:32
17

Women men meet die

+

Men girls love

=

Women men girls love meet die


So, similar to Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo... and John had had 'had'..., it is a valid sentence, but how to parse it is completely non-obvious to even native speakers. And that's the point the paper is trying to make: "Being parsable according to the rules of grammar" is not the same as "naturally parsable to a human speaker".

16

The original source of the sentence is Eric Wanner (1980) “The ATN and the Sausage Machine: Which One is Baloney?” Cognition, volume 8, pages 209-225.

Wanner also republished as "The Parser's Window" in The Congnitive Representation of Speech 1981, pages 211-223.

Wanner starts from the sentence:

a. [The beautiful young woman][the man the girl loved][met on a criuse ship in Maine][died of cholera in 1972]. (brackets in original text)

Then he writes:

b. The woman the man the girl loved met died.

and finally

c. Women men girls love meet die.

Sentence "c" is preceeded by the comment "is very difficult to comprehend" in Wanner's paper.

Wanner is commenting on Frazier and Fodor's 1978 "The sausage machine: A new two-stage parsing model" Cognition, volume 6, pages 291-325 which discusses sentences a and b, (excecpt sentence "a" had no brackets and the date was 1962).

Wanner's point is to rebute a hypothesis of Frazier and Fodor that sentence "a" is easier to understand than sentence "b", because the bracketed blocks are about six words, six words being the parser's window. Wanner points out that:

it is possible to construct an equivalent sentence which is short enough to fall entirely in the PPP's window yet is very difficult to comprehend:

c. Women men girls love meet die.

So in context it is understandable what meaning Wanner intends for "Women men girls love meet die", but it is difficult to comprehend, which is Wanner's point.

  • Thank you ! This context clarifies a lot and explains why this example is not "poor" as some people that did not bother reading the source affirmed... – Jedai Mar 29 '15 at 18:52
14

Women men girls love meet die.

The sentence is perfectly grammatical. Here it is with the grammatically omisible pronouns inserted:

  • Women whom men that girls love meet die.

It might be easier to parse with a determiner and a comma:

  • Any women whom men that girls love meet, die.

It can be glossed like this:

  • If men loved by girls meet women, the women die.

However, as the author of the sentence is exemplifying, it is incredibly difficult to mentally parse this sentence, even though it is very short.

13

Buildings collapse. Architects design buildings. Buildings architects design collapse.

Universities train architects. Architects universities train design buildings.

Buildings architects universities train design collapse.

Sentences linguists universities train design do, too.

12

Yes, it does make sense. Or at least it is in some sense, valid English. It is by no means a good sentence though. It is a corner case, devised to be a counter example to that particular parsing technique.

Consider (127) from the thesis you linked

(127) # The woman the man the girl loved met died.

It is a past tense, specific case of

(130) # Women men girls love meet die.

We can understand (parse) "The woman the man the girl loved met died." it in parts, and it helps to assign names to the individuals:

Call Amy the Girl, Bill the Man, and Cathy the Woman.

  • "The woman (Cathy) the man (Bill) the girl (Amy) loved met died."
  • Amy loved Bill
  • Bill met Cathy
  • Cathy is dead

So: "Women men girls love meet die." says that in general that can happen: Men who are loved by girls, meet women. These women do (generally) die

Ie, the fact that they are met by a man who is loved by a girl, does not render the woman immortal.


Using a modern parse such as the Stanford Parser, we can see that it succeeds on #127:

(ROOT
  (S
    (NP
      (NP (DT The) (NN woman))
      (SBAR
        (S
          (NP
            (NP (DT the) (NN man))
            (SBAR
              (S
                (NP (DT the) (NN girl))
                (VP (VBD loved)))))
          (VP (VBD met)))))
    (VP (VBD died))
    (. .)))

But Not on #130:

(ROOT
  (S
    (NP (NNP Women) (NNS men) (NNS girls))
    (VP (VBP love)
      (S
        (VP (VB meet)
          (VP (VB die)))))
    (. .)))
  • Does it really say that this can happen, or that it does happen? I would think it means the latter. – sumelic Mar 23 '15 at 5:05
  • Your right, it should be does. Editting.\ – Lyndon White Mar 23 '15 at 5:06
  • 3
    Let's substitute the terms using your names: "Cathy Bill Amy loves meets dies". That is just as incomprehensible as your original sentence. I put it to you that if either version of a contorted sentence like this one cannot be understood without being supplemented by a convoluted (and in this case, completely unconvincing) explanation, it does not, using any reasonable yardstick, make sense. – Erik Kowal Mar 23 '15 at 6:09
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    And there's no need for a comma? I am dubious about its validity, although "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is your standard example of a perfectly grammatical but nonsensical sentence, I have no trouble understanding its absurdity, whereas the quote "women men girls love meet die" seems to defy logic. – Mari-Lou A Mar 23 '15 at 6:10
  • 1
    @ErikKowal: You seem to have misunderstood the purpose of calling the names. I was not suggesting that they were variables to be substituted in, just that It would help in the explanation. I have edited to clear that up I hope. (It is definitely a poor sentence, but it seems the authors claim it is a valid one)) – Lyndon White Mar 23 '15 at 6:16
7

Women die, eventually. Other things, like rocks, don't die.

Men sometimes meet women, sometimes they meet rocks.

Women men meet die. Rocks men meet don't die.

Not all men are equal. Some men are especially beloved by girls. Men girls love are lucky.

Still, men girls love sometimes meet women. And women men girls love meet die.

In short, the meaning I get is: It may seem some of us are lucky some of the time, but in the end it always turns out to be a sad story. We should abandon love and stick to rocks.

Human brains find this hard to understand.

5

Yes. It's a tortured sentence, but its structure is clear when analyzed carefully. The sentence "women men meet die" is clear enough — women, that men meet, die. The full example takes the embedding one level deeper; the noun "men" is replaced by the noun phrase "men girls love" (men that girls love). Syntactically, it's a perfectly valid replacement. Practically, it's enough to make people throw up their hands, and make otherwise intelligent people claim that it's meaningless.

  • 1
    Right analysis, wrong conclusion. If "syntactically" the sentence is "perfectly valid" but it leads people to "claim that it's meaningless" then your definition of "syntactic validity" needs work. This is crypto-prescriptivism--an argument that validity of language is dependent on something outside of whether the hearer finds the speaker intelligible. – dodgethesteamroller Mar 24 '15 at 16:21
  • @dodgethesteamroller some people fail to understand it. Some people also fail to understand me when I speak in German — doesn't mean there's anything wrong with my German. – hobbs Jul 21 '15 at 14:47
5

Meaning of 'valid sentence'

In this question the main problem lies not within the particular sentence example, but with the understanding of what does it mean for a sentence to be 'valid'.

This seems to be an illustration of a very simple point - if you have a formal technical definition of 'valid sentences', it is still likely that you'll get sentences that match that definition (and thus are formally 'valid') but still are incomprehensible to most native speakers and thus actually are not part of their language, and/or the opposite case where a sentence that is widely used in practice (and thus obviously is a part of the language) is technically 'invalid'.

4

The statement only needs some punctuation.

Women, Men, Girls: meet! love! die!

Think, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend me your ears!"

  • 1
    I like your lateral-thinking approach, but it's definitely not what the authors intended. – Hellion Mar 24 '15 at 14:59
  • 3
    I think the author deserves to be misunderstood here. :-) Sentences that require punctuation, inflection, or slow analysis to understand, and altering the same, alters the meaning. Presenting it without punctuation or inflection is an academic argument rather than an attempt to communicate. – Dronz Mar 24 '15 at 17:07
  • 1
    @Dronz Well, yes. The sentence was presented without punctuation as part of an academic argument. Adding punctuation changes the intended meaning. – Hellion Mar 24 '15 at 22:08
  • This can only be an assumption as the intended meaning is obscure. – Martin Schwehla Mar 26 '15 at 18:24
-2

Basic sanity checks:

  1. Is it intended to be English? If not the question depends upon which language it is in (and it could be valid Forth).
  2. What is the grammatical subject, the grammatical verb and remainder of the main clause. Else it fails a basic formal English test, and is either not a valid sentence or is in an English-like language that is different from formal English.

It is an error, given a message, to assume you know the rules of the language the message is written in. Agreement as to linguistic rules are by convention: formal English gives a means for a large number of strangers to effectively communicate if we play by the same rules, though this property of English is fading in preference to ad hoc informal conventions such as Textspeak which allow the intended meaning to be figured out without the grammatical complexity.

  • Account for sentences with an implicit subject. – Samuel Edwin Ward Mar 24 '15 at 21:40
-2

You already have your answer in the added information you provided. It makes sense to those who intend to use it. To others, they may assign any number of meanings. Many of those commenting above have chosen to alter the structure and add in the missing punctuation, or wording, to make it more grammatically correct. This just proves that the sentence does function as it's intended. It's a sentence each individual could analyze the instant they've read it due to it's small structure, lack of punctuation, and simplistic wording. It can be restructured in a seemingly infinite number of possibilities (though you could calculate the number of possible combinations using all words in the English language that could be substituted or added to the sentence, and all forms of punctuation, but I don't feel like working out that mathematical calculation), to make more sense to the reader. This rapid interpretation can be done unconsciously and instantaneously by a reader. And with some conscious effort, you can come up with many more interpretations. All are varied interpretations entirely dependent on the individual.

So, in context:

Question: "...is it a valid sentence?" Answer: Yes Question 2: "What does it mean?" Answer: Provided above

Out of context:

Question: "...is it a valid sentence?" Answer: No

You wouldn't exactly walk up to some random person and spew a sentence such as that, and expect them to have a clear understanding of what you just said.

-2

Yes.

Women

[that]

men [that] girls love

meet,

die.

-2

Women, men, girls, meet, love, die.

Would make more sense as:

Women meet, love and die, as do men and girls.


You could also assign one subject to each noun as:

Women meet, men love, girls die.

As you can see, it doesn't make as much sense as the one above. It does seem to be a valid sentence however, just not one that has only one interpretation.

-19

Just for the record then,

1) "It doesn't [...] make sense" Yes, the first thought of the OP was 100% correct. It is six random words that make no sense. It's that simple.

2) Note that in English (which is infinitely flexible) you can make any collection of six random words make a scan in some sense (try it); you can spell anything any way you like; and you can use any word in any other grammar form. It's completely vacuous reaching for a scan of these particular six random words (I already gave the best possible such "oh it could be used like this..." in a comment.) Simply, for every question about English (ie, every question on this site), "the" answer (ie, the most generally accepted usage of the issue in question) can be appended with a rider "of course, you could do such and such..."

3) Almost all academic work on NLP is of little value and poorly thought-out, and commercial work (ie: "google"), you can evaluate by using google. So I wouldn't waste brain power on a whacky example from a whacky paper.

  • 1
    Fodor wasn't doing NLP. He was reasoning about how brains work with Chomsky. – bmargulies Mar 23 '15 at 11:36
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    @bmargulies Fodor in this case is actually a 'she' (Janet Fodor, not Jerry Fodor). – Alan Munn Mar 23 '15 at 15:09
  • 7
    -1 You don't seem to understand what "NLP" means, and you don't seem to understand the point of the sentence, which is to demonstrate that there are considerations beyond the application of rules of grammar that determine whether the brain can process a sentence. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 23 '15 at 19:04
  • 9
    How many times are you going to use the phrase "It's just that simple" on this page? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 23 '15 at 22:04
  • 1
    you can use any word in any other grammar form What, you mean like using 'leverage' as a verb and things like that? You don't need to do anything so spurious as that to understand the OP's sentence. – John Gowers Mar 23 '15 at 23:42

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