Andrew Dowd, the intrepid and renowned hunter of syntactic rarities, has finally managed to find a "Russia sentence" captured on video. There are bound to be some of you out there who didn't fully believe that people walk around saying nonsensical things like More people have been to Russia than I have. You needed harder proof. Well, here it is, on YouTube, and what's more, the speaker is an experienced broadcaster confidently compering a TV panel game:
At around 30 seconds in, you can hear and watch Stephen Fry (he of the unbearably prissy recent BBC language program Fry's Planet Word) say: It so happens that more people in the world are bitten by New Yorkers every year than they are by sharks.
Think that through with your grammar module fully powered up and you'll see that it is not a sentence and couldn't possibly mean anything. Yet Fry thinks it does, and the panel members seem to understand it, and so does the whole studio audience. It's so weird: a total non-sentence (perhaps we should call them "nonsences"?) that everyone is tempted to think, wrongly, is just fine: as I put it a couple of years ago, when we look back at such a sentence we realize "it couldn't possibly be claimed to have the right syntax to say what we (wrongly) thought it said."
Linguists do not understand this phenomenon. But they are keeping it under observation.
Material added 2 May 2012, 7 a.m. EST:
Work on the topic is being done at the University of Maryland, by Colin Phillips and other linguists and psycholinguists, among them E. Lau, Matt Wagers (now at the University of California, Santa Cruz), and Alexis Wellwood. See, for example, C. Phillips, M. Wagers & E. Lau (2009), "Grammatical illusions and selective falibility in real time language comprehension", in Jeff Runner (ed.), Experiments at the Interfaces, volume 37 of Syntax & Semantics, Emerald Publications. Phillips et al. have run a number of experiments to try to get to the bottom of how the illusion arises.
Colin Phillips points out to me (by email) that the Stephen Fry example (More people in the world are bitten by New Yorkers every year than they are by sharks) is not quite the same sort of thing as the stereotypical Russia sentence (More people have been to Russia than I have), and I agree: I noticed the difference, but felt the two had enough in common to count of instances of a single phenomenon. It's been suggested that the term linguistic illusion might be useful in talking about the relevant class of phenomena in broad terms, and that is how the Maryland researchers are referring to it. Phillips goes on:
The problem with the genuine Russia sentences is that plural subject in the first clause ("more people") has no corresponding countable NP in the second clause to be compared to. On the surface, Stephen Fry's example is similar ("More people … they"). But since "they" is anaphoric to the bare plural "people", it does not fail in the same way that the classic Russia sentences do. What is interesting about the Fry example, I think, is the way that that pronoun is anaphoric to something that it is not intended to corefer with.
For what it's worth, our experiments on Russia sentences have tested a number of popular ideas about the source of the illusions, e.g., mis-recall of word order due to category ambiguity of "more", the "not just me" interpretation, etc. Most of them turn out to find little support in the experiments. The one thing that does seem to consistently matter is whether the predicate is repeatable/countable, e.g., an individual can go to Russia multiple times. Non-repeatable predicates consistently reduce the illusion effect. So the illusion seems to be related to a phenomenon that has interested semanticists, where statements about quantities of individuals are understood as assertions about quantities of individuals, e.g., "100,000 cars drove across this bridge last month", which is not falsified if it turns out that some individual cars contributed many bridge-crossing events. We have a detailed poster on this work, and a paper on it is almost complete.
One other thing. Some people have written to me to insist that there's nothing wrong with the sentence Fry uttered, since "its meaning was clear". Yes, everyone understood him; that is the whole source of the puzzlement here. People who insist that the sentence is fine are (if I'm correct) in the position of people who insist that the first line really is shorter than the second in the Müller-Lyer illusion. Yes, we know you are sure of that. That is the phenomenon of interest. If you really think that More people in the world are bitten by New Yorkers every year than they are by sharks can mean "New Yorkers bite more people every year than sharks do", then I have to say that I think you're mistaken, and to begin seeing that you should ask yourself what they refers to.
[More people are prepared to open comments than I am. But they are open.]