My wife and I have a shopping bag that can be folded up and placed in a tiny bag with a button on it so that it can be easily carried with you in case you need it. We went shopping and used it to carry our groceries home. My wife keeps it in her hand bag, so the smallest bag (the one with the button) was in her hand bag.

So I said “I’m going to put the bag in the bag in the bag” which we agreed was grammatically correct albeit unclear without context.

Then I said, realising that I would still be able to place the now two bags back into the hand bag “In fact I’m going to put the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag.”

My wife thinks the second sentence is not grammatically sound, because the same bag is mentioned twice. However I don’t see any problem with it, beyond it being unclear.

So is “Put the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag” ungrammatical?

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    Your example sounds pretty dumb, but what makes you think it might be "ungrammatical"? How many nested elements would you suppose are too many? – FumbleFingers Jul 22 '18 at 14:47
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    Yeah there's no grammatical limit to this. You can say that you put the keys in your hand in the jar on the shelf in the room on the second floor in your house on Baker's Street just outside Berlin in Italy on planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy. Likewise, you can say that you put the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag in the bag. In fact, you have to say that if that's what you've done. How else would you describe it. You could shorten it, yes, but that's losing information. You didn't just put your keys in the Milky Way. Not the same thing at all. – RegDwigнt Jul 22 '18 at 15:21
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    Far stupider constructions are still perfectly legal English. – Hot Licks Jul 22 '18 at 20:22
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    Not ungrammatical, but mostly nonsensical. Substitute some other nouns and you'll see why, e.g. “Put the scraps in the bag in the bin in the kitchen.” Grammatical and makes sense. – Chappo Jul 23 '18 at 2:44
  • There are 3 bags: smallest, middle and large. The sentence means “putting the middle bag in the smallest bag in the biggest bag in the biggest bag.” So the last iteration is repeating the same item twice. I guess it is still grammatical but pretty stupid. – jhsowter Jul 23 '18 at 10:22

First of all, you only explicitly define two items

At the start, you have:

The bag-with-a-button in the handbag.

After shopping, I assume that you have expanded the bag-with-a-button and it is now holding groceries.

It makes no sense that you would be able to put the expanded bag-with-a-button (and its groceries) back into the handbag. However, the reverse could be true.

Assuming it is, you would leave the store with:

The bag-with-a-button (and its groceries) in the handbag.

In both scenarios, all you have is:

A bag in a bag.

So, I don't see where the third "bag" is coming from.

Even if I guess that you may be referring to the bag-with-a-button as a "bag in a bag," I would write that out as the "bag-in-a-bag" and we would end up with one of the following situations, depending on if you were arriving at or leaving the store:

  1. The bag-in-a-bag in the bag.
  2. The bag in the bag-in-a-bag.

But let's put aside the question of where all of your "bags" are coming from, and assume that there actually is a third or even a fourth.

I can think of no possible logical sense in which any of these bags could be placed "inside itself."

For example:

The handbag in the bag-with-a-button in the handbag.

Or (after dropping unique names):

The bag in the bag in the bag.

This construction, while valid in terms of syntax, is not possible from a practical standpoint. (Unless in a thought experiment or some science fiction or fantasy story.)

While I can form a grammatical sentence that repeats in a bag as many times as I want, it would be nonsensical if one of those instances referred back to itself.

However, if you can expand each instance of "the bag" with a unique name and if you can use all of those unique names in a sentence only once, then it is both grammatical and semantically correct (even if confusing).

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