Monday, February 21, 2011

Link on Linguistic Illusions

Here's a link I picked up from PBS (go, PBS!). Colin Phillips is using "linguistic illusions" to explore how the brain processes language, much in the way people use optical illusions to see how the brain processes vision. Here's an example:

More people have been to Russia than I have.

Does that make sense to you? Does it really?

You can check out more, and find a link to the academic paper associated with them, here.


  1. "It is unlikely that Congress will ever pass that bill. The surprising thing about this very ordinary sentence is that the sentence that should have the opposite meaning, "It is likely that Congress will ever pass that bill," clangs so dissonantly. The word "ever" is a negative polarity item and (in English, at least) has a direct line to the brain's grammar police."

    I don't get this one at all. Ever is used in conjunction with a negative. The only way to make their "correct" sentence work is to say "It is likely that Congress will never pass that bill."

    But fun anyway. The funny thing is they ALL got me to pause except the one referring to the female. I just thought I was reading a sentence without the one before it in a single paragraph.

  2. Megs, yes, I did wonder about that one. I'm guessing one might learn more in the paper associated with it. There may also be local dialect factors involved. In some areas of the country, people use "any more" with positive verbs, with a very specific meaning. It's not part of my dialect, though. The male name one didn't get me to pause, but that may be because I name fantasy people oddly all the time... or because I may have thought it was a last name.

  3. I agree with Megs about the bill passing sentence. Changing unlikely to likely flips the probability to very slim to very good unless ever is also changed to never.

    And the sentence "While she was taking classes full time, Russell was working two jobs to pay the bills." Personally, I thought that a great sentence to slip in the fact that Russell is actually a girl as opposed to what we would normally think. When writing stories, sometimes we want to go against the grain or because we use names that aren't clearly one or the other due to the genre, like you said, Juliette. Russell's name being the opposite of expectations could be a strong factor in the story. Heck, my name is a girl's name, but since it is uncommon in the US, people still don't know until they meet me or see my picture. I'd rather see clear pronoun use instead of spending a good part of the story trying to decide if the character is a boy or girl. Good embarrassment fodder for the characters when worked right, but annoying for the reader to not know. (I know my 5th grade teacher would have been less embarrassed if she had known I was a girl before I entered the classroom. She'd put me at the end of a boy's row and had to change my assigned seat quickly. What a great way for me to start the year at a new school.)