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What does the sentence:

"John I believe Sally said Bill believed Sue saw."

mean?

It is cited in a textbook as an example of a grammatical but uncommon sentence.

Source: Manning, Christopher D., and Hinrich Schütze. Foundations of statistical natural language processing. Cambridge: MIT press, 1999. p. 10.

  • It probably means you're missing punctuation. "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously" is also grammatical, although it doesn't mean anything logically. It's quite common though, on this website anyway, as it's a famous demonstration of why "grammatical" isn't the be-all and end-all. – AndyT Sep 4 '17 at 10:25
  • It needs punctuation. John, I believe Sally said Bill believed Sue saw [her parents / better after her operation / ...]. The final 'saw' here would be the detransitivised usage ('Nobody saw me do it.' ... 'Jill saw!') – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 10:28
  • Or John – I believe Sally said, Bill – believed Sue saw. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 10:53
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks for the explanation, but there seems to be a variant without adding any punctuation. – jvamvas Sep 4 '17 at 11:02
  • I'd argue that it's so unidiomatic as to be 'incorrect' anyway, but would accept that the same applies to my suggestions. The 'Buffalo x 8' sentence has probably never been used in earnest. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 11:03
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  • John I believe Sally said Bill believed Sue saw.

is a transform of the grammatical (though complex) sentence

  • I believe Sally said Bill believed Sue saw John.

via the Left Dislocation transformation. This sentence in turn is a transform of

  • I believe that Sally said that Bill believed that Sue saw John.

which is much clearer, though longer, with all three complementizer that's.

Executive Summary:
  Replace all the stuff that's been deleted before you try to parse the sentence.

  • I'm tempted to quote the sage who said 'It's grammatical, but that's the only good thing you can say about it.' – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 10:57
  • Without thinking of such a 'dislocation', can't it be John, I believe what Sally said, (what) Bill believed, (what) Sue saw? An example of asyndeton too! – mahmud koya Sep 4 '17 at 12:54
  • If you pronounce it differently, with different intonation and stress, it can mean that. But no one would interpret a written sentence that way without some serious punctuation or in a poem. – John Lawler Sep 4 '17 at 19:18

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