The Dead Ends of Language: The (mis)interpretation of a Grammatical Illusion

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This paper explores the so-called ‘comparative illusion’ or ‘dead end’ experimentally – a pseudo-elliptical, seemingly grammatical, but ill-formed sentence, e.g. More people have been to Paris than I have. Repeatability of the event and choice of quantifier (more vs. fewer) do not affect acceptability significantly, whereas plurality of the than-phrase subject does. The illusion is fast and (superficially) easy to parse, suggesting that it is (mis)interpreted directly, not via ellipsis resolution or syntactic reanalysis of some intermediate representation. (Mis)interpretation neither leads to a single representation, nor does it rely on broad superficial heuristics, but falls into a small set of possibilities. Furthermore, even when people are told that such examples may in fact be meaningless, they are still tricked, showing that the effect is very robust.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLet Us Have Articles Betwixt Us : Papers in Historical and Comparative Linguistics in Honour of Johanna L. Wood
EditorsSten Vikner, Henrik Jørgensen, Elly van Gelderen
Number of pages31
Place of publicationAarhus
PublisherDepartment of English, University of Aarhus
Publication dateJan 2016
ISBN (Print)978-87-91134-03-6
ISBN (Electronic)978-87-7507-359-7
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


  • syntax
  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • linguistics
  • language processing
  • Parsing
  • Anomaly
  • psycholinguistics
  • Experimental linguistics
  • ellipsis


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