What’s the best sentence ever formed?

by on April 3, 2013 at 7:23 am in Data Source, Education, Uncategorized | Permalink

That was the topic of a recent Quora forum (by the way may I officially announce that Quora seems to have succeeded?  Would it be so bad to spend less time with your Google Reader and more time browsing Quora?), and here was the top pick:

“I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.”

(Dmitri Borgmann, Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities. Scribner, 1965)

This is a ‘rhopalic’ sentence: A sentence or a line of poetry in which each word contains one letter or one syllable more than the previous word.

File under “Very good sentences’!  If I understand the Quora system correctly, that was from Ramnath Ragunathan.

Nishit Jain has the runner-up:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

No, really. There’s a whole Wikipedia page on it – Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

The sentence’s intended meaning becomes clearer when it’s understood that it uses the city of Buffalo, New York and the somewhat-uncommon verb “to buffalo” (meaning “to bully or intimidate”), and when the punctuation and grammar is expanded so that the sentence reads as follows: “Buffalo buffalo that Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” The meaning becomes even clearer when synonyms are used: “Buffalo-origin bison that other Buffalo bison intimidate, themselves bully Buffalo bison.”

The entire thread is worth reading, and in your spare time you can ponder why most of the best answers come from individuals with names from the subcontinent.  Here is the contribution of Veekas Shrivastava, listed as an elementary school chess player (retired):

A little grammar puzzle:

“that that is is that that is not is not that is it is it not”

Correctly punctuated: “That that is, is. That that is not, is not. That is it, is it not?”

Here is from Sugavanesh Balasubramanian:

“However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.”

So there.

Enrique April 3, 2013 at 7:36 am

Those monstrous “sentences” are certainly clever and whimsical, but are they really great?

anon April 3, 2013 at 7:48 am

Agreed. These are cleverly engineered phrases, nifty mind puzzles but not great in terms of what effect they have on others. To be fair, the question was vague.

Also on the ethnicity question, would be intereting to know who is doing the upvoting. Majority views tend to be well represented in democracies.

Andreas Moser April 3, 2013 at 8:08 am

Great is something else, like the opening sentence of Samuel Beckett’s “Murphy”:
‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.’

Rahul April 3, 2013 at 7:42 am

What’s with the ethnically Indian domination of this English language oddity corner?

A colonial subjugation hangover?

Urso April 3, 2013 at 7:44 am

For an unusual definition of “best.” These examples are irritating and basically incomprehensible. For some immeasurably better sentence, refer to the author discussed one post below.

Edward Burke April 3, 2013 at 7:50 am

An old favorite:

John where James had had had had had had had had had had had the teacher’s approval.

Punctuated:

John, where James had had “had”, had had “had had”; “had had” had had the teacher’s approval.

Eric April 3, 2013 at 8:01 am

My two favorite:

If a “the” had a “the” it would be the “the” the “the” had. And if that the had a the, it would be the the the the the the had had. And if that the had a the, it would be the the the the the the the the had had had …

Also, should there be a comma between fish and and, and and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and chips in the sentence, “Should there be a comma between fish and and, and and and and, and and and chips in a fish and chips sign”?

jsylvest April 3, 2013 at 8:03 am

The “valorous visitation” sentence is from a longer passage in the same vein from Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta.”

AndrewL April 3, 2013 at 8:05 am

we giggled over these in high school, hardly the best sentences ever formed. The best sentence should convey information in the clearest possible way and in the fewest amount of words.

That being said, the shortest story ever told (by Ernest Hemingway): “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. April 3, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Sadly, this attribution appears apocryphal.

It *should* be true though.

meicate April 3, 2013 at 8:18 am

“may I officially announce that Quora seems to have succeeded”

It’s snopes for people with 150k student debt.

Hell-Mikey April 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm

“It’s snopes for people with 150k student debt,” is a pretty good sentence itself.

David Parker April 3, 2013 at 8:43 am

While slightly off-topic and not about the sentences, I have to say that I think that Quora is ripe to be destroyed.

When Quora started to block answers, then it became just like expertsexchange back in the day (which also blocked answers), and Stackoverflow quickly destroyed it. I’m ready for a Stackoverflow to take out Quora.

Rahul April 3, 2013 at 9:10 am

Yep. I hate it that they wont let you browse without signing up.

dan1111 April 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

A very burdensome signup process, too.

Dave Anthony April 3, 2013 at 9:30 am

Expert sex change?

Mark Thorson April 3, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Yes, it won’t hurt a bit.

Tangurena April 6, 2013 at 2:05 am

Add me to the list of folks who won’t sign up at quora and thus can’t read anything there.

anon April 3, 2013 at 8:46 am

“And this, too, shall pass away.”

buddyglass April 3, 2013 at 8:54 am

I remember this one from an artificial intelligence class I took in college:

“Time flies like an arrow.”

It’s supposed to represent the difficulty of natural language processing since there are so many different ways it can be understood. Wiki page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_flies_like_an_arrow;_fruit_flies_like_a_banana#Analysis_of_the_basic_ambiguities

eduo April 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

As a fan or word play and grammar tricks I find the insinuation that these come from India a bit misleading. They, surely, have been posted first on Quora by Indian-named people, but in all cases the phrases are much older and pretty famous.

Could it be that the timing meant that more people from India read it and commented before it became “visible” in the U.S.? Could it be that a group of Indian people with similar tastes in grammar shared the link and they all contributed?

Since the phrases are most definitively not indian I don’t think we can make any deductions other than that a group of indian people with an interest in interesting wordplay happened upon that quora thread and commented on it. Since quora will tell you what your friends have answered on and Indian names are so obviously different (whereas people from at least five countries would have all english-sounding names) we can be led to what I believe to be a false assumption.

Rahul April 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

I don’t think the insinuation’s that Indians came up with these. It is that they are, perhaps, more amused by it.

mavery April 3, 2013 at 9:55 am

Or they use Quora more. Or there are just more of them. Or they remember this kind of thing better. Or feel the need to signal about language skills/erudition more.

Sarcastic April 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Showstopping analysis. You must be a hit at all the parties.

charlie April 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm

You’re missing the point. there weren’t any Muslims.

Iyenger Swamy April 3, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Eduo Comment Fail! Lol!! I am erudite!

shrikanthk April 4, 2013 at 12:05 am

Indians are very good at second hand circulation / popularization of ideas/trends originating elsewhere.

Barkley Rosser April 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Ike an’ Can can-can. Can Cann can-can? (yes)

mavery April 3, 2013 at 9:55 am

Can’t.

Ray Lopez April 3, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Can Ike, with a canned opening, say the Caro-Kann? Or can Ike play a canned opening say the Caro-Kann? In the first instance we ask to vanquish (can) Ike playing a known (canned) chess opening, the Caro-Kann, while in the second sentence we question whether Ike can play such an opening.

Which witch is which? (from the Wizard of Oz)

Barkley Rosser April 3, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Oh, I did not do it right. Here it is.
Ike ‘an Cann can can-can. Can Kann can-can? Kann can can-can.

Ray Lopez April 3, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Karl Icahn (“I-can”), the American greenmailer, but not tinned goods greengrocer, is *not* amused.

Canned Trivia: Citigroup has its roots in American Can, which as late as the early 1980s was canning cans consumed from Cambridge to Cannes, then became Primerica and eventually Citigroup, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Can_Company. If you don’t get it, you have a tin ear for puns.

Barkley Rosser April 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I note that in terms of the longest sequence of identical sounding words, Eric’s one about fish and chips has 32 “and”s making it the top. Mine on “can”s has 13 for #2, although they are spelled differently, which may disqualify.

And while talking about fish, I note that it can be spelled “ghoti,” with “gh” as in laugh, “o” as in women, and “ti” as in nation.

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 6:10 pm

How many cans can a cannery can if a cannery can can cans?

Jay Hancock April 3, 2013 at 9:07 am

From my archives,originally found on a 1995 listserv by Hal Davis, then of the National Law Journal, now of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

“Wouldn’t the sentence ‘I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign’ have been clearer if quotation marks had been 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, as well as after Chips?”

JWatts April 3, 2013 at 10:18 am

(sorry people, I still don’t seem to care).

I kid, I kid.

Millian April 3, 2013 at 11:33 am

“And me now.”

Doug M April 3, 2013 at 11:52 am

It is much easier to say this sentence than it is to write it.

“There are three “to’s” in the English language.”

Matt Rutter April 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Nobody has mentioned the
Sole Seoul sole sole and soul shop…..

That is, the only shop in the Korean capital that sells fish, mends shoes, and has a record department!

Dan Weber April 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I looked up that first sentence two days ago. I was wondering if MR was stalking me.

I first heard it on Car Talk as one of their puzzlers. I could figure it out, and remembered how it started, but couldn’t finish it.

Jonathan Andrews April 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

My favourite sentence is “The frost performs it’s secret ministry unhelp by any hand”.

There is music in words as we, the Welsh, understand.

Ken April 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Many years ago I invented this torture for students of English:

He fought coughing through the borough’s rough boughs.

Ken April 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Damn, it was so long ago I forgot the though.

Though coughing, he fought through the borough’s rough boughs.

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Use Hitchmough instead of he.

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Got to figure out how to get “drought” in there. I think that’s the last of the common English pronunciations of “ough.”

Barkley Rosser April 3, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Just tack it on the end as “in a drought.”

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 7:59 pm

How about “Though coughing, Hitchmough fought through a drought in the borough’s rough boughs.”

Ken (a different one, actually) April 3, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Slough rhymes with “new”, or does Hitchmough too?

Jasper Fforde does this kind of wordplay a lot in his “Thursday Next” books. There’s one passage that plays with “that that” and “had had” and manages to end up with some ridiculous number of them in a row.

Willitts April 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I’m sure Hitchmough has numerous pronunciations. Obviously there is an original pronunciation and then the Ellis Island version.

I think it rhymes either with “ma” , “muh” or “mog.”

Slough is a good one, but I thought it rhymed with rough.

Oliver April 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I feel like it’s hard to announce that Quora has succeeded when its growth path looks like this: http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=quora&cmpt=q

Gareth Wilson April 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I like “Why did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

Brian Donohue April 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm

No Yalies? Monty Burns would be disappoint.

Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight!

Peter April 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm

No one has ever been able to create a coherent sentence* that uses all 26 letters of the alphabet once, and only once. The closest I’ve ever seen used 25 letters, all except “t,” and sort of stretches the definition of “coherent” to the limit: Fjord bank cym glyphs vex quiz.

* = technically speaking A, B, C … X, Y, Z would be a sentence, the answer to “What are the letters of the alphabet?”

andy April 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog!

Uses all 26 letters

andy April 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm

But not only once…

Peter April 3, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Whoops, that was “cwm glyphs”

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Jesus weeps.

Willitts April 3, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Here is one my daughter brought home from school:

“Jamie while John had had had had had had had had had had had my approval.”

Sriram April 3, 2013 at 10:29 pm

One reason might be that, in India, wordplay and puns are seen as a sophisticated, intellectual form of humor and a sign of strong intelligence.

In the West, puns are often looked down upon and seen as the lowest form of humor.

anon April 3, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Surely you jest.

shrikanthk April 4, 2013 at 12:12 am

One reason why PG Wodehouse is still so very popular in India unlike in the English speaking world where he has gone out of fashion

shrikanthk April 3, 2013 at 11:53 pm

George Orwell would regard that sentence on family doctors as a terrible one going by his views in the essay Politics and the English Language

The over-use of Latin words in English hurts the language something that Orwell often bemoaned.
Latin-derived words like transcendence, decipher etc. Especially when simpler Saxon alternatives exist.

Good English sentences should read something like this -
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Simple, vivid.

zmil April 3, 2013 at 11:57 pm

“… in your spare time you can ponder why most of the best answers come from individuals with names from the subcontinent.”

Because this: http://thenextweb.com/in/2013/02/26/india-passes-the-us-to-become-quoras-top-source-of-traffic/

zmil April 4, 2013 at 12:00 am

Why Quora is so popular in India, which is perhaps the question you were really asking, is probably more worth pondering.

Which is a pretty terrible sentence, but hey, it fits the theme.

Bill Shakespeare April 4, 2013 at 7:47 am

I got loads of ‘em:

Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thy own esteem;
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.

Christine April 4, 2013 at 11:47 am

The responses all seem to be leaning toward “greatest sentence” from the perspective of the syntax itself; like sounds of the words.

If you interpret it in another way, meaning merely the symbolism or meaning of the sentence, and how efficiently it fits large ideas into short language, then I have to second the commenter who suggested “This too, shall pass.”

It is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity in expressing a seemingly endless list of very complex situations and feelings. What other sentence could bring you comfort when you are upset, temper your joy when you are happy, calm you down when you are angry, or make you doubt anything which is certain? And all just in four short words. I love it.

Krazi Randi April 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

A coworker of mine said to another, “I am IM-ing”, so I asked her, “What if you were Muslim, and trying to inform your mother about your attempts to send an instant message to the leader of your mosque in Florida: you’d say, ‘Mom, I am IM-ing my imam in Miami’. It’s not up the the previous examples, but worth it for all the dazed looks I got. Come to think of it, I could’ve substituted “Burma” for “Florida” and “Myanmar” for “Miami”.

tim April 7, 2013 at 4:39 pm

“The authority, sir, of all these great men, whose works, as well as the whole of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the entire series of the Monthly Review, the complete set of the Variorum Classics, and the Memoirs of the Academy of Inscriptions, I have read through from beginning to end, deposes, with irrefragable refutation, against your ratiocinative speculations, wherein you seem desirous, by the futile process of analytical dialectics, to subvert the pyramidal structure of synthetically deduced opinions, which have withstood the secular revolutions of physiological disquisition, and which I maintain to be transcendentally self-evident, categorically certain, and syllogistically demonstrable”

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