Trends in syntactic style

« previous post | next post »

Today's SMBC:

The punch line:

The aftercomic:

Milton's embeddings are less relentlessly parenthetical than that — here are the first two sentences of his Areopagitica:

They who to States and Governours of the Commonwealth direct their Speech, High Court of Parlament, or wanting such accesse in a private condition; write that which they foresee may advance the publick good; I suppose them as at the beginning of no meane endeavour, not a little alter'd and mov'd inwardly in their mindes: Some with doubt of what will be the successe, others with feare of what will be the censure; some with hope, others with confidence of what they have to speake. And me perhaps each of these dispositions, as the subject was whereon I enter'd, may have at other times variously affected; and likely might in these formost expressions now also disclose which of them sway'd most, but that the very attempt of this addresse thus made, and the thought of whom it hath recourse to, hath got the power within me to a passion, farre more welcome then incidentall to a Preface.

Though I suppose that his dislocations and appositions might approximate the same effect to some extent.

I'm also not convinced that Computer Science folk are likely to have more (parenthetical or other) embedding in their communications than English or Philosophy or Psychology people are — though this is certainly subject to empirical test, and in fact I have access to student writing samples where a test might be made.

For what such a test might look like, see "Inaugural embedding", 9/9/2005.



  1. Sergey said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

    I with the legalese used the explicit parentehses. That would also obviate the arguments about the meaning of the absence or presence of a comma before "and". :-)

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

    I’ve read that Milton passage three times now and come unstuck each time at the “and likely might” clause, never to recover. So much for the benefits of a Classics degree…

  3. Ed Palmer said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 6:38 pm

    It may be that the artist is playing on the syntax of certain computer languages such as Lisp where parentheses are heavily used. The speaker then is modeling in spoken English the same style of communication as she does when programming. That makes more sense to me (a programmer originally) than the idea that CS types tend toward more parenthetical statements in written English.

    The aftercomic reinforces the idea that it's a play on programming languages since it seems to be a conscious mirroring of the "If-Then-Else" programming construct.

  4. S Frankel said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    My best friend is a computer science type, and he does talk like that.

  5. Antariksh said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    Agreed with Ed Palmer. LISP-like languages are notorious for having lots of embedded parenthetical structures. The joke is that while the 'professor' is bemoaning the lack of appreciation for deep embedded structures, computer programmers actually do use them.

  6. Steve Burnap said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

    Mark Danielewski's "The Familiar" series ( has chapters written in roughly stream of conscious form from the points of view of different characters. Two characters, a woman working on a PhD in the social sciences, and her husband, a software engineer, have their chapters written very much like that cartoon.

  7. Stephen Hart said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

    And a classic programming error is mismatched (unclosed (or unopened)) parentheses.

  8. philip said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 1:03 am

    Which Milton are we talking about here? I presumed it was the author of Paradise Lost, but maybe there is another one?

  9. tangent said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 2:05 am

    Depth-2 parentheses I see occasionally from programmers and formal-logic types, and never anyone else. Counterexamples?

  10. jaap said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 5:05 am

    There's a mouse pointer and a transparent mouse-over text visible in the first image.

  11. Jason said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 5:09 am

    An obvious outlier in literature: Raymond Roussel's New Impressions of Africa, which goes as deep as 7 [IIRC] sets of parentheses, although I guess mostly it's dodging between 2 and 5.

  12. mark dowson said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 8:06 am

    LISP, of course, stands for 'Lots of Irritating and Silly Parentheses'

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    The author of "Paradise Lost" also wrote "Aeropagitica" and other prose works.

  14. Marc said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 9:55 am


    Berle, of course…

    “Come on folks. I know you’re out there. I can hear you breathing.”

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    Pflaumbaum: I got stuck at "High Court of Parlament," but this edition prints it with an exclamation point afterwards, suggesting that it's a vocative.

    As for "and likely might", doesn't the subject have to be "each of these dispositions", whether it makes sense or not?

  16. Robert Coren said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    I sometimes find myself writing almost like that CS person (well, I was a software engineer in my previous life), mostly because I keep deciding I have to explain stuff. Fortunately I usually read what I write before letting the wider world see it, and I try, not always successfully, to simplify.

    That Milton quote is a tough row to hoe, and I wonder how many of his contemporaries were able to make sense of it; probably a much smaller percentage of them were likely to ever even attempt it than would be true nowadays. And I agree with @Pflaumbaum that the "likely might" clause is particularly challenging; the best I can do is suppose that the implied subject is "I", even though there's no actual instance of the pronoun in a position to be that subject.

  17. Theophylact said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 11:32 am

    I've lost my copy of Morris Bishop's A Bowl of Bishop, but I recall a poem with an almost inconceivable level of nested parentheses.

  18. DaveK said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    @Robert Coren:
    As best I can make out, the subject of the "and likely might" clause is "each of these dispositions" in the preceding clause.
    I suppose Milton's target audience, being fluent in literary. Latin and used to the punctuation style might have been able to get through the passage fairly easily. E

  19. John Roth said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 12:37 pm


    Real humans have trouble processing more than two levels of embedding. One of the tricks we were taught in NLP class (that's Neuro-Linguistic Programming, not Natural Language Processing) was to do several layers and then skip one on the way back up. The result was usually rampant confusion that could be exploited with decent planning.

    This is why center embedding in a sentence tends to confuse people, and why systems of syntax that are built on indefinite recursion simply don't work – they have no rules about when too much recursion leads to sentences that can't be understood by ordinary mortals.

  20. KeithB said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

    It also happens in the bible when author quotes the prophet who quotes God who quotes the Israelites who quote…

  21. Emily said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    Relevant xkcd:

    Relevant SpecGram article:

  22. peter said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    Novelist Francis Spufford on writing explanatory text in a novel:

    “Most novels, I felt as I was writing, were not so foreign to the modes of human interchange they portrayed that they had to explain the basic definitions of things as they went along. It was as if I had to dip my steel-nibbed pen into the inkwell and say,

    ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife; a wife being the female partner in a pair-bonded relationship for life, sanctioned by religion and integrated into systems of inheritance, child-rearing and regulated sexuality; a fortune being a quantity of money at a high multiple of the society’s average income, usually but not invariably available as a liquid resource; money being…’

  23. Bloix said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

    Here's a sentence from today's Guardian on the state of men's tennis:

    Murray, who pulled out of the Brisbane International on Tuesday (after the pre-tournament withdrawal of Rafael Nadal – who is still recovering from the knee injury that forced him out of the ATP World Tour Finals in November – and Nishikori), heads the casualty list.

    [(myl) Obviously written by a computer scientist.]

  24. ardj said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    @Pflaumbaum, @ Jerry Friedman, @Robert Coren, @ DaveK

    Jerry Friedman is clearly right about “each of these dispositions” being the subject, and necessarily “me” the object – if I can use such old-fashioned syntactical terms in such elevated company (that is to say, that of expert linguisticians, doubtless far better able to parse a “phrase”, as we say in French, though perhaps “clause” would be better here, than me – or than I am, if you prefer), of the verb “may have affected”.

    “likely might … disclose” is more troubling. I think Robert Coren is on the right lines. I think Milton merely switches from treating ‘me’ as an object in the preceding main clause to using it as the subject here, equivalent to “I”: rather than the alternative that each of the dispositions might disclose, though that is also possible. I suppose the suggestion of an understood “I” is also possible, however.

    And thanks to Jerry Friedman for noticing a possible exclamation mark after High Court … – that may make a little more sense, but I am still puzzled. I take the general sense to be, “[able to] direct their speech in or to the … Parliament”, by contrast with those ”wanting such access in a private condition”. But Milton does sometimes depart even from the “regular” syntax of his day (e.g. above, and the sentence beginning, “Nevertheless there being three principal things” later in his first paragraph – a use of apposition now common in French and also to be found in the language of a present president.) Maybe Milton (that is to say, the Milton who wrote these words, always supposing it were he) meant something like: “They who direct their speech to Governours, they shall be found in the High Court of Parlament”, or “They who … Governours, they are the High Court …”

    I am also a little puzzled by “States”, but that is not, I think, a syntactic issue, unless it affects the interpretation of the High Court (I assume States here is sense 16 in the OED 2nd ed.: A high rank or exalted position, an office of power, or the parallel 24, A person of standing, importance or high rank … which cites Paradise Lost as an instance, or 26, The rulers, nobles or great men of a realm, the government, ruling body … – and thus a parallel to Governours). But this may be wrong.

  25. Bloix said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

    And this is a real sentence from a real novel — Taking Chances by Molly Keane, written about 90 years ago. They're all over the place once you start to look for them:

    The third baronet and his sister, who stood together before their door in the first chill of an October evening, waiting, Roguey eagerly, Maeve with a different depth of urgency, for the sound of a car coming up the long avenue, in looks at least did credit o their breeding.

  26. BZ said,

    January 8, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

    I have a CS background and certainly don't talk like that. Nor do I understand multiple parentheticals in speech or writing any better than most. I will allow that I may include more parentheticals in writing, but that is not a certainty.

RSS feed for comments on this post