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The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncover them.

This sentence was generated by ChatGPT and the bot claims that ‘uncover’ verb belongs to the ‘sailor’ and that it is a valid English sentence, despite the absence of ‘s’ in the end of the verb, because "uncover is a bare infinitive".

Can this sentence, the way it's phrased, really mean that it is the sailor who uncovers the secrets? I would normally put an ‘s’ in the end of ‘uncover’ as I recognize it as a 3rd person singular verb in present tense:

The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncovers them.

Which is the right way? The

..., but it is the sailor who ... that uncover them.

or the

..., but it is the sailor who ... that uncovers them.

Or are they both correct perhaps?


A bit of clarification from the bot, it seems to mean "that is able to uncover" by the "that uncover" part:

Certainly! Here is the saying about the ocean that I came up with earlier: "The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncover them." This saying suggests that the ocean's depths contain secrets that have not yet been discovered, and that it is the sailor who is brave enough to endure and navigate through difficult storms that is able to uncover these secrets. The storms serve as a metaphor for the challenges and obstacles that must be overcome in order to discover something new or uncover something that was previously hidden. I hope this helps! Is there anything else I can help with?

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    It should be uncovers because, as you point out, sailor is singular. So it made a mistake. GPTs make lots of mistakes. Jan 6, 2023 at 22:48
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    Humans make similar mistakes, though, whereby a finite verb agrees in number with the nearest preceding noun (here storms) and not with its proper subject. In the 1952 D'Oyly Carte recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, for instance, Fancourt sings "And then each ghost, with his lady-toast, to their churchyard beds take flight," though Gilbert had correctly written "takes" there. Jan 6, 2023 at 22:58
  • @Brian Huh, that's a weird one. At first I thought the error was related to distributivity because of "each", but "each ghost take flight" doesn't sound right. Now I'm thinking it's actually because of "their", which implies a plural subject: "[they] to their churchyard beds take flight", referring to the ghost and lady. Because otherwise you'd keep a singular subject by writing "to his churchyard beds takes flight". I'm not familiar with the play, though.
    – wjandrea
    Jan 7, 2023 at 18:20
  • What question did you ask such that the bot generated that sentence and analyzed it as well? Jan 7, 2023 at 19:16
  • From the bot: I apologize for any confusion that my previous response may have caused. In the sentence "The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncover them," the verb "uncover" should actually be in the singular form to agree with the singular subject "sailor." The correct sentence would be: "The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncovers them." I apologize for the error in my previous response. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.... Jan 7, 2023 at 20:47

5 Answers 5

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The sentence in the OP is actually not as simple as we might think. The sentence reads:

The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncover them.

The heart of the question is, should we say 'uncover' or 'uncovers'? It depends what we want to communicate.

If we mean that the storms uncover the secrets, then there is no s, because storms is plural. One storm uncovers; many storms uncover. So the sentence would be correct. (But note that the reasoning given by the bot is wrong. 'Uncover' is not an infinitive. it's simply a verb matched correctly to its subject within its clause.)

If on the other hand we mean that the sailor does the uncovering, then the grammar is wrong, because sailor is singular and requires the singular verb 'uncovers'.

So which one is it? It turns out that question is not so easy to answer, because there are issues with other parts of the sentence as well. We see this if we try some rewrites of the sentence:

  1. The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms who uncovers them.
  2. The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms.
  3. The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the storms that uncover them.
  4. The ocean's depths hold secrets yet to be discovered, but it is the sailor who braves the storms that uncover them who gets the treasure.

If I wanted to be clear that the sailor was uncovering, I would repeat 'who' in the two clauses, as in example 1. The sailor who braves the storm is also the sailor who uncovers the secrets. The change from 'who' to 'that' is as much a clue to a change of subject as the change from singular to plural.

Examples 2-4 show the problem with simply applying the last clause to 'the storms' without further thought. If we do that, what is the point of referring to the sailor at all? Example 3 makes perfect sense by itself: The ocean hides secrets, but the storms uncover those secrets. On the other hand, mentioning the sailor by himself feels odd. Example 2 is grammatically correct, but feels incomplete. "But" implies a thematic connection between the two halves of the sentence. What is it? And "...it is the sailor who..." leads us to expect more information about the sailor, as shown in example 4.

So in summary, I don't think the sentence is wrong, but I do think its meaning is fuzzy and I personally would try to reword it to communicate my point better.

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    Your point is well-said: The change from 'who' to 'that' is as much a clue to a change of subject as the change from singular to plural.
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 3:17
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    Sorry, seems like the title of the question was altered by someone. The identity of subject was not a concern, the concern was whether or not it was valid to refer to sailor doing the uncovering without an "s" on the verb. I returned the original title, sorry for misleading you.
    – Klesun
    Jan 7, 2023 at 20:15
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That Bot-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named here is correct — if you can understand secrets to be the antecedent for them and that uncover them to be a relative clause describing storms . . .

The depths hold secrets, but it is the sailor who braves [the storms that uncover them].

The depths hold secrets, but it is the sailor who braves [the storms that uncover secrets].

The depths hold secrets, but the sailor braves [the storms that uncover secrets].

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  • But the bot also claimed that "uncover" belongs to "sailor". So that part is wrong.
    – Barmar
    Jan 7, 2023 at 15:43
  • @Barmar — For what it’s worth... I just asked the bot about the grammar of the sentence and got a different interpretation than the OP. The interpretation had some flaws (e.g. calling that a conjunction) but did identify storms as the noun described by that uncover them. That made me wonder whether “the bot” could even be considered a single entity. I asked. “It” answered: ...I am not a single entity, but rather a collection of algorithms and data that have been combined in a specific way in order to perform a particular task. Jan 7, 2023 at 17:10
  • "That" is a subordinator in the OP's example. What else could it be? The more salient interpretation is that it is the sailor who uncovers the secrets. "The sailor [who braves the storms] [that uncovers them]" contains the 'stacking' of two relative clauses (bracketed), so the antecedent of the second relative clause is the singular "the sailor who braves the storms", thus the verb should be singular "uncovers".
    – BillJ
    Jan 7, 2023 at 18:07
  • @BillJ — Why would the sailor be a who in the first relative clause and a that in the second? Jan 7, 2023 at 18:39
  • Probably to avoid repetition by using a wh relative in the first and a that relative in the second. Repeating "who" would be stylistically inelegant. I realise that there is another interpretation where "storms" is antecedent for the second relative clause, but it seems less likely to me. Who knows?
    – BillJ
    Jan 7, 2023 at 19:11
1
  1. The depths hold the secrets.

  2. The storms uncover the secrets.

  3. The sailor braves the storms.

The sailor braves the storms
....that uncover the secrets
....that the depths hold.

If you run the sentence through CMU’s online parser, it gives this constituent tree:

(S (S (NP (NP The ocean 's)
          depths)
      (VP hold
          (NP secrets)
          (S (VP (ADVP yet)
                 to
                 (VP be
                     (VP discovered))))))
   , but
   (S (NP it)
      (VP is
          (NP (NP the sailor)
              (SBAR (WHNP who)
                    (S (VP braves
                           (NP (NP the storms)
                               (SBAR (WHNP that)
                                     (S (VP uncover
                                            (NP them)))))))))))
   .)

It is that parse which I have explained.

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  • @fertilizerspike The parse tree is saying it's the storms that uncover them, not the sailor. The sailor is who braves the storms. I cannot comment on the sense, only on the syntax, and that's what the syntax is saying. If you're looking for linkage from them back to secrets or to depths or heaven forbid to sailor, then you need to use other tools or other displays than I have shown here with this simple tree. Being in separate enclosing sets of parentheses does not bar anaphor resolution.
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 3:20
  • "The sailor [who braves the storms] [that uncovers them]" contains the 'stacking' of two relative clauses (bracketed). The antecedent of the second relative clause is the singular NP "the sailor who braves the storms", thus the verb should be singular "uncovers".
    – BillJ
    Jan 7, 2023 at 18:10
  • @BillJ Why would who and that share the same referent?
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 18:17
  • "Who braves the storms" combines with it antecedent to form the larger unit "sailor who braves the storms" and this is then the antecedent for the second relative clause, "that uncovers them". Nothing unusual about it, but it comes with no guarantees!
    – BillJ
    Jan 7, 2023 at 19:14
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    I mean the sentence could be ambiguous. It's possible that the relative clauses are not stacked but independent, i.e the author intended the antecedent for the second relative clause to be "storms".
    – BillJ
    Jan 7, 2023 at 19:39
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The would be fact that the storms uncover secrets make no sense at all; it has to be the sailor that uncovers them. Therefore an s is needed and someone made a mistake.

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    Storms can certainly uncover secrets. The tempest’s fury can raise them up from the depths where they previously lay hidden from view and in so doing reveal them to the sailor's eye.
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 1:10
  • @tchrist Storms at sea are a very superficial phenomenon that merely stir the surface of the waters; the treasures being referred to lie in the depths; and then, treasures, which is mere ballast at the bottom of the sea, suddenly floating on the surface? What other possibility could it be ? I've never heard of pearls being washed ashore or floating on the surface, meerschaum, at best, can be collected on the surface, and it is not such a treasure….
    – LPH
    Jan 7, 2023 at 7:33
  • @LPH ten second google search: express.co.uk/news/uk/927465/…
    – fdomn-m
    Jan 7, 2023 at 14:31
  • @freedomn-m Then, how do you fathom those sailors and their ships braving storms as they wash away sand from the littoral?
    – LPH
    Jan 7, 2023 at 15:02
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I think it is being read to mean "sailor who is uncovered by the storms braves those storms", which is obviously a valid meaning. It's just failing to parse the nesting properly. Most humans would understand "secrets" can be uncovered by storms and "uncovering sailors" with a storm is a bizarre concept, but large language models struggle with this kind of use.

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    Is there any reason to think that the word "them" in the original sentence refers to the sailor and not to the secrets? Jan 7, 2023 at 12:49
  • This isn't really about what the sentence means, it's about how the language model parsed it to give apparently wrong advice. Jan 7, 2023 at 18:03
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    I don't quite understand. What makes you suspect that the language model parsed the word "them" in the original sentence as referring to the sailor instead of the secrets? Jan 7, 2023 at 20:54
  • It's parsing back and assigning it to the first candidate it finds in the clause after "but", "sailor uncovers them(neuter pronoun for sailor)" Jan 7, 2023 at 21:03
  • That's the way i read the audit log but I'm no expert Jan 7, 2023 at 21:04

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