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Richard Nordquist

A Few More Oddities: Illeism, Semantic Satiation, and Garden-Path Sentences

By September 24, 2012

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As noted in our first installment of Grammatical Oddities, there's hardly a single principle of grammar or rhetoric that's not accompanied by a list of variations, qualifications, and exceptions. Often, it seems, these exceptions (or "oddities") are more interesting than the rules.

Here are three more constructions that probably don't appear in your writing handbook but may be worth examining all the same.

  1. Garden-Path Sentence
    Because word order in English is fairly rigid (as compared to Russian or German, for instance), we can often anticipate where a sentence is headed after reading or hearing just a few words. But notice what happens when you read this short sentence:
    The man who whistled tunes pianos.
    In all likelihood, you were tripped up by the word tunes, first approaching it as a noun (the object of the verb whistled) and only afterward recognizing its true function as the main verb in the sentence. This tricky structure is called a garden-path sentence because it leads a reader down a syntactic path that seems right but turns out to be wrong.

  2. Semantic Satiation
    There are countless rhetorical terms for different kinds of repetition, all of which serve to enhance the meanings of key words or phrases. But consider the effect that's created when a word is repeated not just a few times (by way of anaphora, diacope, or the like) but again and again and again without interruption:
    I fell to repeating the word Jersey over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.
    (James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times, 1933)
    The "disturbing mental state" described by Thurber is called semantic satiation: a psychological term for the temporary loss of meaning (or, more formally, the divorce of a signifier from the thing it signifies) that results from saying or reading a word repeatedly without pause.

  3. Illeism
    In speech and writing, most of us rely on first-person pronouns to refer to ourselves. That, after all, is what they were made for. (Note that I came to be capitalized, as John Algeo points out, "not through any egotism, but only because lower-case i standing alone was likely to be overlooked.") Yet certain public figures insist on referring to themselves in the third person by their proper names. Here, for instance, is how pro basketball player LeBron James justified his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat:
    I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.
    This habit of referring to oneself in the third person is called illeism. And someone who regularly practices illeism is known (among other things) as an illeist.

More Oddities:

Blackboard: an example of a garden-path sentence

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