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4. Hearing and Language: Hacks 44–52 > 51. Stop Memory-Buffer Overrun While Rea...

Stop Memory-Buffer Overrun While Reading

The length of a sentence isn’t what makes it hard to understand—it’s how long you have to wait for a phrase to be completed.

When you’re reading a sentence, you don’t understand it word by word, but rather phrase by phrase. Phrases are groups of words that can be bundled together, and they’re related by the rules of grammar. A noun phrase will include nouns and adjectives, and a verb phrase will include a verb and a noun, for example. These phrases are the building blocks of language, and we naturally chunk sentences into phrase blocks just as we chunk visual images into objects.

What this means is that we don’t treat every word individually as we hear it; we treat words as parts of phrases and have a buffer (a very short-term memory) that stores the words as they come in, until they can be allocated to a phrase. Sentences become cumbersome not if they’re long, but if they overrun the buffer required to parse them, and that depends on how long the individual phrases are.


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