Back then when I was in Form 3 (Grade 9), I came across this song called “I’ll never get over you getting over me“ from the American group Exposé. I was stuck at the title of the song. No matter how many times I looked at it, I just could not understand what it means. Years later, when I listen to this song again now, I know what went wrong.

In the chorus, the song has this line: I’ll never get over you… getting over me. And that is the problem! I tried to understand the sentence according to how it is segmented in speech:

[ I’ll never [ get over you ] ] [ getting over me ]

(In linguistics, we often use square brackets to indicate a phrase. They are useful when we want to show the structure of a sentence.)

I thought “I’ll never get over you” is a complete clause, so “getting over me” is either a present participle phrase, or, I don’t know. Of course it could not work, because the only way to understand the sentence is like this:

[ I’ll never [ get over [ you getting over me ] ] ]

The whole phrase “you getting over me” serves as the object of the main verb “get over”, because it is the fact that “you get over me” that “I’ll never get over”.

The lesson to learn here is that phonological phrases (how we segment sentences in speech) do not always agree with syntactic phrases (how sentences are structured).

Another case when these do not coincide is when we use that-clauses:

Phonological: She said thatshe would come.

Syntactic: [ She said [ that she would come ] ]

In speech, if a pause occurs in a compound sentence with a that-clause, it normally occurs after the word that. However, syntactically we have to say the whole clause “that she would come” is the object of the verb said, both because it’s the whole clause that is taking up the position of the direct object, and, semantically, what “she said” is the fact “that she would come”.

This mismatch between phonological and syntactic phrases is probably due to the way our brain processes language. As language processing is done linearly, the brain has to actively “calculate” what the next word or phrase should be. The pause after that buys us some time for the brain to think, while the word that itself is already so predictable that we don’t even have to think about it. The pause could also be a signal to the listener that something longer and more complex is coming, so be prepared!