One day my coworker (who is also my daughter) peeked over her computer monitor and said, “I just made up a sentence with my name in it five times.” Aside from the fact that she should have been working, I wondered what was so remarkable about a sentence that contained multiple instances of her name. “What is it?” I asked. “Coral Coral Coral Coral Coral,” she replied. It wasn’t an interesting answer.
I informed her that a repetition of her name five times did not constitute a sentence. I knew I was in for a fight though, Coral has a master’s degree in linguistics and it’s just like her to pull some linguistic trick out of her hat to legitimize her claim. It took a while for her to explain but she was right, it is a real sentence.
Interpreting the sentence hinges on following definitions of the word coral:
1) the color coral, a pinkish yellow
2) the marine invertebrate coral that makes coral reefs
3) the verb coral, which means to color something coral colored
4) the name Coral, for example my daughter
Using those definitions, the sentence becomes: Coral (1) coral (2) coral (3) Coral (4) coral (1). In other words, coral colored coral animals color my daughter Coral coral colored. It’s a difficult sentence to decipher but I was impressed that her name had so many meanings. And there’s even another one, the unfertilized eggs of lobsters are also called “coral.” How versatile she is.
The coral sentence got us thinking about other people’s names. There was only one other person at work who had a name that could be made into a sentence. “Rob, rob Rob” wasn’t nearly as impressive though, using “rob” twice as a proper name and once as a verb and requiring a comma.
A few days later I overheard two coworkers discussing the meaning of a section of some computer manual. One read a phrase to the other. “File file file
What about the sentence: I want to put two hyphens between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish And Chips sign? That’s a perfectly normal sentence that just happens to contain five instances of the word “and” in a row. But what if you thought that sentence was confusing? Suppose you thought it’d be easier to interpret if it were written: I want to put two hyphens between the words “Fish” and “And” and “And” and “Chips” in my Fish And Chips sign.
I don’t know if the sentence really needs those added quotation marks so I might have to ask someone. To do that I could say: Wouldn’t the sentence “I want to put two hyphens between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish And Chips sign” be clearer if quotation marks were placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, and after Chips? That sentence makes perfect sense and yet it contains an unbroken sequence of twenty-one instances of the word “and.”
Sentences such as these incorporate homophonous phrases. These are strings of words that either are the same (as in the Fish And Chips sign example), have the same spelling but different meanings (as in the Coral example) or simply sound the same. An example of the last is: To tutor two tutors in tutus is to tutor two tutued tutors too many.
Next time you wonder why computers can’t understand English, ask yourself instead how it is that people can. When you think about it, it’s a miracle we can understand each other at all.