Fun With Grammar

BuffaloBuffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

This is a grammatical sentence in English, if you say it with the right intonation. It’s the kind of thing that makes no sense in writing, but is quite clear if you say it out loud. A paraphrase would be something like, “New York state bison bully New York state bison”.

I’ve seen longer versions, too, but I think after six buffalo it becomes impossible to decipher even when said aloud, although you can easily stretch the sentence to six words if you simply address it to a buffalo:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo, buffalo.

I majored in linguistics as an undergraduate, can you tell? We linguistics majors were always discussing sentences that were amusing for their grammar. For instance, another example of ambiguous sentences that are made clear by intonation (or perhaps mainly rhythm) is this one:

Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like a banana.

These kinds of complex rhythmic, tonal, and contextual clues to meaning are the reason that no one who’s taken a year of syntax class is surprised to learn that computers still can’t understand human language. There is a very interesting discussion of the problems associated with making computers understand language on wikipedia.

Winston ChruchillA lot of people have heard about Winston Churchill’s response to his editor’s erroneous prescription that English sentences can’t end with a preposition. Legend has it that Churchill sent him a note that read:

This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.

To illustrate the fact that English sentences can indeed end with prepositions, people try to construct sentences that end with as many prepositions as possible. Like the story about a child whose father comes upstairs every evening to read to her before bedtime. One evening he came up the stairs with a book she didn’t like. She asked him:

What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?

The ease with which an English speaker can match each preposition to its object would seem to indicate that English doesn’t just tolerate prepositions at the ends of sentences, it positively loves them. Some say that the book the father picked out was about Australia, and that the little girl actually said:

What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of about down under up for?

That may be what she said, but a moment’s thought will tell you that in this sentence, “down under” is a noun.

Images courtesy of wikipedia and Xtraordinary people

More about language


~ by lolarusa on March 25, 2008.

8 Responses to “Fun With Grammar”

  1. This is wonderful – I am going to enjoy passing it on to many people.

  2. I was lost till I discovered that to buffalo means to bully. Now I can’t get the word buffalo out of my mind…

  3. Wow, I had to re-read all of those sentances at least twice (in one case 5 times) to actually understand them.


    Savin Oxide

  4. Yes, the buffalo one in particular can cause a cerebral feedback loop.

  5. These are fun. Battered children battered children. Or: Battered children battered and ate battered children. I can see I’ll be working on these for a while. Thanks, lolarusa!

  6. The buffalo sentence reminds me of when I was told of a sentence with five consecutive ‘and’s. It was:
    You know that new sign at the Rose and Crown? Well, the spaces between ‘Rose’ and ‘and’ and ‘and’ and ‘Crown’ are different.

  7. John Pindar,

    Very nice contribution to the genre. I shall keep it in mind.

  8. “I used to think I knew I knew,
    But now I must confess,
    The more I know, I know I know,
    I know I know the less.”

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