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Consider the following sequence of (supposed) sentences:

  • "Organisms that fish eat are tasty" is valid English sentence.
  • "Organisms that fish eat, eat." is also valid English sentence, although it's getting confusing.
  • "Fish that fish eat, eat." more confusing, but still valid.
  • "Fish that fish eat eat." Could I really have dropped the comma here?
  • "Fish fish eat eat." Could I really, legitimately, have drop the definite article here?

If you've accepted all of the above, then surely you must conclude that:

"Fish fish fish eat eat eat" is a grammatically correct sentence in English.

but how can that be? It's super-confusing. Isn't there some principle limiting the depth of this nesting-of-phrases?

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    I don't know, sounds fishy. – nnnnnn Oct 26 '19 at 9:53
  • @nnnnnn: Hah! Maybe it's because your nick stands for newts newts newts nibble nibble nibble . – einpoklum Oct 26 '19 at 10:23
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    The exposition might persuade me that the sentence is grammatically correct. But if I were presented with that sentence without the exposition I would not have parsed it with the meaning it has above; I'd have thought it was a fragment of the internal monologue of a shark. – High Performance Mark Oct 26 '19 at 10:46
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    @einpoklum The format you've reverted to got you 4 downvotes and 3 close votes. But, do as you wish ... – David M Oct 26 '19 at 19:30
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    @einpoklum So, what is your question? Because it's not clear from your post. Is it why is this grammatical or is it how many times can you pull off this stupid grammar trick? Your format is confusing at best. The close vote reason that 3 people picked is: I'm voting to close this because it's nonsense. – David M Oct 26 '19 at 19:43
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This is what one paper calls a "multiple self embedded sentence":

We have [a self-embedded (SE)] sentence when a phrase is placed totally within another phrase of a similar type, e.g., (1) The nurse that the cook saw heard the butler. A multiple SE sentence has a phrase within a phrase which is in another phrase, e.g., (2) The nurse that the cook that the maid met saw heard the butler. The latter example is definitely unacceptable to speakers of English. People have difficulty in pairing the verbs with their subject nouns, if indeed they even get as far as recognizing that the words comprise a sentence.
Observations with self-embedded sentences

(The other thing that is happening in your sentence is that "that" is being dropped.)

These are theoretically valid sentences, but are very hard to parse and therefore are unacceptable to most people.

You can create similar sentences yourself by writing write a valid sentence using a placeholder pronoun ("the man {she} loves is gone"), then replace that pronoun with something. Said something that's replacing the pronoun can be another phrase, itself using a placeholder pronoun ("a woman {he} knows"), and then you can repeat this infinitely ("the man {a woman {a child {another boy} saw} knows} loves is gone").

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I can make this work grammatically, but you REALLY have to squint at it.

I'll break it down for you.

Fish eat. This is a simple sentence. Fish (n) eat (v).

Fish fish eat This is not a sentence. It's a noun phrase. (Fish that other fish eat.)

Fish fish fish eat. This is a sentence. [Fish that other fish fish for] (noun phrase) eat (v).

Fish fish eat eat. This is a sentence. Fish who are eaten by other fish (noun phrase) eat (v).

Fish fish fish eat eat. The fish which (fish who are eaten by other fish) eat. -- Noun phrase.

Fish fish fish eat eat eat. - The fish which get eaten by (fish who are eaten by other fish) (very complex noun phrase) eat(v).


This is comparable with the famous buffalo sentence.

I won't unravel that here. But, it's worth a read.

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  • Is the verb 'fish' ever used for fish as agents? Have you a supporting reference? – Edwin Ashworth Oct 26 '19 at 18:12
  • @EdwinAshworth Do Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo? – David M Oct 26 '19 at 19:06
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm think I might be confused as to your meaning. I'm suggesting that the fish going fishing for other fish in order to eat them. Not on behalf of them. For example, an angler fish fishes for other fish. – David M Oct 26 '19 at 19:39
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    Fish fish fish eat. can also be a command telling what kind of fish to fish for: Fish for fish that fish eat. – Jim Oct 26 '19 at 21:26
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    @Jim One of the 20 drafts I made for answering this question had that. But, I decided to constrain it to showing the logical progression to the answer. – David M Oct 27 '19 at 0:05
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Yes, the above sentence is grammatically correct. As explained in the source you linked, this is by omitting various instances of 'that'. The meaning of the sentence is: 'fish that eat other fish, which in turn eat other fish, eat'

To prove how grammatically correct 'fish fish fish eat eat eat' is, we start with a simple clause: fish eat.

To turn that into fish fish eat eat, we merely modify the subject (fish) to be 'fish [that fish eat]', and by omitting the 'that' we are left with fish [fish eat]. Reinserting this modified subject into the original clause, we are left with 'fish fish eat eat'

This logic can be applied again, this time modifying the modifier of the original subject of the clause - this time, clarifying that the subject of the phrase 'fish eat' aren't merely eaten by other fish: they are eaten by fish that are in turn preyed upon by other fish.

This results in the clause 'fish [(that) fish [(that) fish eat] eat] eat', which can be simplified down to 'fish fish fish eat eat eat'.

This logic can be applied indefinitely, resulting in a nearly-nonsensical phrase that has almost no applicability outside the realms of:

(a) Extremely specific biology and describing the actions of fish at the bottom of the food chain and

(b) Instances such as these

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  • I realize the logic, but surely there's supposed to be some limit to nesting of the use of "that" phrases, under some conditions... isn't there? Or some rule against omission of 'that' or definite articles to avoid ambiguity. – einpoklum Oct 26 '19 at 15:31
  • @einpoklum probably theoretically there should be. However I don't necessarily think that grammar makes much theoretical sense most of the time, especially in English. Is there some sort of giant grammar encyclopaedia that can tell us if nesting has a limit? – Ibex Oct 26 '19 at 15:33
  • @Jaekelopterus, Fish (that) fish eat... is not a phrase, but a clause. Phrase cannot be split into subject and verb, but clause... "Fish that fish eat..." precisely is an adjective clause. – Ram Pillai Oct 26 '19 at 16:59
  • @RamPillai Oh oops - I didn't catch that. I've changed it now. Thanks! – Ibex Oct 26 '19 at 17:02
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Expressions like this are common in spoken English. The repetition gives emphasis and a sense of repeated action. The meaning is conveyed by the sequence of concepts, which often expresses an accepted truth in an ironic or self-mocking form. For example:

  • Work work work, pay pay pay.

  • Write write write, drink drink drink.

Grammatically, the third repetition makes it clear that we’re not using the first noun to modify the second, as we might do in certain forms of casual expression, e.g. “Is your dog a dog dog, of more of a loner?” Here, the speaker alludes to the common expression dog person or cat person, and invites the listener to respond in a similar tone. Or at a restaurant: “We have fish fish, shell fish, and calimari.

The need for third repetition is not absolute. There’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”: https://www.bartleby.com/73/1914.html.

The ideal number of repetitions depends on how the repeated word sounds in the context of the full expression.

In other words, it’s not necessary to parse this sentence as a combination of nouns, verbs and noun-adjectives. Other meanings are possible.

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  • Your statement, while correct on the face of it, has nothing to do with answering the question of why is this grammatical. The statements you've made are not grammatical. They're just statements that people might make. – David M Oct 26 '19 at 19:48
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FISH Fish fish eat Eat EAT

Fish [the fish (that fish eat) and eat] then eat. You eat [fish (eaten by fish) that eats fish].

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  • Somehow I don't feel enlightened by this answer. – einpoklum Oct 26 '19 at 17:43
  • It's like EATING THE FISH that Eats Fish which again eat fish. – Ram Pillai Oct 26 '19 at 17:51

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