Polish Notation and Garden-Path Sentences

Polish notation is a mathematical notation system that allows you to eliminate parentheses without ambiguity. It’s called “Polish” because the name of its Polish creator, Jan Łukasiewicz, was too difficult for people to pronounce.

A motivating example: Suppose somebody says “p and q implies r”. There are two possible interpretations of this: “(p and q) implies r” and “p and (q implies r)”. The usual way to disambiguate these two is to simply add in parentheses like I just did. Another way is to set an order-of-operations convention, like that “and” always applies before “implies”. This is what’s used in basic algebra, and what allows you to write 2 + 2 ⋅ 4 without any fear that you’ll be interpreted as meaning (2 + 2) ⋅ 4.

Łukasiewicz’s method was to make all binary connectives into prefixes. So “A and B” because “and A B”, “P implies Q” becomes “implies P Q”, and so on. In this system, “(p and q) implies r” translates to “implies and p q r”, and “p and (q implies r)” translates to “and p implies q r”. Since the two expressions are different, there’s no need for parentheses! And in general, no ambiguity ever arises from lack of parentheses when using Polish notation.

If this is your first time encountering Polish notation, your first reaction might be to groan and develop a slight headache. But there’s something delightfully puzzling about reading an expression written in Polish notation and trying to understand what it means. Try figuring out what this means: “implies and not p or q s r”. Algebra can be written in Polish notation just as easily, removing the need for both parentheses AND order-of-operations. “2 + 2 = 4” becomes “+ 2 2 = 4”, or even better, “= + 2 2 4”.

Other binary connectives can be treated in Polish notation as well, creating gems like: “If and you’re happy you know it clap your hands!” “When life is what happens you’re busy making plans.” “And keep calm carry on.” “Therefore I think, I am.” (This last one is by of the author the Meditations). Hopefully you agree with me that these sentences have a nice ring to them, though the meaning is somewhat obscured.

But putting connectives in front of the two things being connected is not unheard of. Some examples in English: “ever since”, “because”, “nonwithstanding”, “whenever”, “when”, “until”, “unless”. Each of these connects two sentences, and yet can appear in front of both. When we hear a sentence like “Whenever he cheated on a test the professor caught him”, we don’t have any trouble parsing it. (And presumably you had no trouble parsing that entire last sentence either!) One could imagine growing up in a society where “and” and “or” are treated the same way as “ever since” and “until”, and perhaps in this society Polish notation would seem much more natural!

Slightly related to sentential connectives are verbs, which connect subjects and objects. English places its verbs squarely between the subject and the object, as does Chinese, French, and Spanish. But in fact the most common ordering is subject-object-verb! 45% of languages, including Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Latin, and Ancient Greek, use this pattern. So for instance, instead of “She burned her hand”, one would say “she her hand burned”. This is potentially weirder to English-speakers than Polish notation; it’s reverse Polish notation!

9% of languages use Polish notation for verbs (the verb-subject-object pattern). These include Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, and Filipino. In such languages, it would be grammatical to say “Loves she him” but not “She loves him”. (3% of languages are VOS – loves him she – 1% are OVS – him loves she – and just a handful are OSV – him she loves).

Let’s return to English. Binary prepositions like “until” appear out front, but they also swap the order of the two things that they connect. For instance, “Until you do your homework, you cannot go outside” is the same as “You cannot go outside until you do your homework”, not “You do your homework until you cannot go outside”, which sounds a bit more sinister.

I came up with some examples of sentences with several layers of these binary prepositions to see if the same type of confusion as we get when examining Polish notation for “and” or “implies” sets in here, and oh boy does it.

Single connective
Since when the Americans dropped the bomb the war ended, some claimed it was justified.

Two connectives, unlayered
Since when the Americans dropped the bomb the war ended, when some claimed it was an atrocity others argued it was justified.

Still pretty readable, no? Now let’s layer the connectives.

One layer
Whenever he was late she would weep.
She would weep whenever he was late.

Two layers
Since whenever he was late she would weep, he hurried over.
He hurried over, since she would weep whenever he was late.

Three layers
Because since whenever he was late she would weep he hurried over, he left his wallet at home.
He left his wallet at home, because he hurried over since she would weep whenever he was late.

Four layers
Because because since whenever he was late she would weep he hurried over he left his wallet at home, when he was pulled over the officer didn’t give him a ticket.
The officer didn’t give him a ticket when he was pulled over, because he left his wallet at home because he hurried over since she would weep whenever he was late.

Five layers
When he heard because because since whenever he was late she would weep he hurried over he left his wallet at home, when he was pulled over the officer didn’t give the man a ticket, the mayor was outraged at the lawlessness.
The mayor was outraged at the lawlessness when he heard the officer didn’t give the man a ticket when he was pulled over because he left his wallet at home because he hurried over since she would weep whenever he was late.

Read that last one out loud to a friend and see if they believes you that it makes grammatical sense! With each new layer, things become more and more… Polish. That is, indecipherable. (Incidentally, Polish is SVO just like English). Part of the problem is that when we have multiple layers like this, phrases that are semantically connected can become more and more distant in the sentence. It reminds me of my favorite garden-path sentence pattern:

The mouse the cat the dog chased ate was digested.
(The mouse that (the cat that the dog chased) ate) was digested.
The mouse (that the cat (that the dog chased) ate) was digested.

The phrases that are meant to be connected, like “the mouse” and “was digested” are sandwiched on either side of the sentence, and can be made arbitrarily distant by the addition of more “that the X verbed” clauses.

Does anybody know of any languages where “and” comes before the two conjuncts? What about “or”? English does this with “if”, so it might not be too much of a stretch.

A Self-Interpreting Book

A concept: a book that starts by assuming the understanding of the reader and using concepts freely, and as you go on it introduces a simple formal procedure for defining words. As you proceed, more and more words are defined in terms of the basic formal procedure, so that halfway through, half of the words being used are formally defined, and by the end the entire thing is formally defined. Once you’re read through the whole book, you can start it over and read from the beginning with no problem.

I just finished a set theory textbook that felt kind of like that. It started with the extremely sparse language of ZFC: first-order logic with a single non-logical symbol, ∈. So the alphabet of the formal language consisted of the following symbols: ∈ ( ) ∧ ∨ ¬ → ↔ ∀ ∃ x ‘. It could have even started with a sparser formal language if it was optimizing for alphabet economy: ∈ ( ∧ ¬ ∀ x ‘ would suffice. As time passed and you got through more of the book, more and more things were defined in terms of the alphabet of ZFC: subsets, ordered pairs, functions from one set to another, transitivity, partial orders, finiteness, natural numbers, order types, induction, recursion, countability, real numbers, and limits. By the last chapter it was breathtaking to read a sentence filled with complex concepts and realize that every single one of these concepts was ultimately grounded in this super simple formal language we started with, with a finitistic sound and complete system of rules for how to use each one.

But could it be possible to really fully define ALL the terms used by the end of the book? And even if it were, could the book be written in such a way as to allow an alien that begins understanding nothing of your language to read it and, by the end, understand everything in the book? Even worse, what if the alien not only understands nothing of your language, but starts understanding nothing of the concepts involved? This might be a nonsensical notion; an alien that can read a book and do any level of sophisticated reasoning but doesn’t understand concepts like “and” and “or“.

One way that language is learned is by “pointing”: somebody asks me what a tree is, so I point to some examples of trees and some examples of non-trees, clarifying which is and which is not. It would be helpful if in this book we could point to simple concepts by means of interactive programs. So, for instance, an e-book where an alien reading the book encounters some exceedingly simple programs that they can experiment with, putting in inputs and seeing what results. So for instance, we might have a program that takes as input either 00, 01, 10, or 11, and outputs the ∧ operation applied to the two input digits. Nothing else would be allowed as inputs, so after playing with the program for a little bit you learn everything that it can do.

One feature of such a book would be that it would probably use nothing above first-order logical concepts. The reason is that the semantics of second-order logic cannot be captured by any sound and complete proof system, meaning that there’s no finitistic set of rules one could explain to an alien so that they know how to use the concepts involved correctly. Worse, the set of second-order tautologies is not even recursively enumerable (worse than the set of first-order tautologies, which is merely undecidable), so no amount of pointing-to-programs would suffice. First-order ZFC can define a lot, but can it define enough to write a book on what it can define?