Actor (and former helmsman of the USS Enterprise) George Takei recently posted the above image on Facebook that depicts a strange example of a perfectly logical English sentence.
It contains lexical ambiguity, where the same words possess different meanings.
And this phrase is only one of many strange examples. We’ve collected our favourite sentences that look confusing and ridiculous but are technically accurate.
1. A ship-shipping ship ships shipping-ships.
As you can see, we turned the meme into sentence and added hyphens for clarity. The above example contains three similar versions of the same word — a noun, adjective, and verb. The adjective, in this case, is actually a participle, “shipping,” or a verb functioning as a modifier.
A ship-shipping (compound participial adjective) ship (noun) ships (verb) shipping-ships (compound participial noun).
Let’s substitute “boat” for the noun and “transports” for the verb.
The sentence then reads more clearly: A boat-shipping boat transports shipping-boats.
2. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Like the last example, this one contains three different versions of the word “buffalo” — the animal (a noun), the city (adjunct noun/adjective), and the action of bullying (verb).
So the sentence really looks like this: Buffalo (the city) buffalo (the animal) [that] Buffalo (the city) buffalo (the animal) buffalo (verb) buffalo (verb) Buffalo (the city) buffalo (the animal).
The meaning becomes much more clear when you substitute bison for the noun version of buffalo and the verb version with a synonym — “bully.” We switched around the words and added a few for clarity, too.
Bison from the city of Buffalo [that] [other] bison from the city of Buffalo bully [also] bully bison from the city of Buffalo.
This lexical ambiguity can work for any word that has the same noun, noun adjunct (adjective), and verb form — like police.
3. Police police Police police police police Police police.
Less known than Buffalo, Police is a city in Poland. Three different forms of the same word come into play above: law enforcement (the noun), the city (an adjunct noun/adjective), and the verb.
Again, we’ll use substitutions to clarify the meaning — “patrol” for the verb form and “law enforcement” for the noun.
Law enforcement from Police [that] [other] law enforcement from Police patrol [also] patrol law enforcement from Police.
4. Can-can can-can can can can can can-can.
For a fourth time, we have the same word with three different meanings: can-can, the dance; can, a verb meaning “able”; and can, a second verb meaning to put in the trash, or euphemistically to outperform.
Can-can, the dance, that other can-can, the dance, are able to outperform are also able to outperform other examples of can-can, the dance.
5. Will, will Will will Will Will’s will?
Will (a person), will (future tense helping verb) Will (a second person) will (bequeath) [to] Will (a third person) Will’s (the second person) will (a document)?
Someone asked Will 1 directly if Will 2 plans to bequeath his own will, the document, to Will 3.
6. James, while John had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.
A story accompanies this example.
Two students, James and John, were asked on an English test to describe a man who, in the past, had suffered from a cold. John wrote: “The man had a cold,” which the teacher marked as incorrect. James, however, wrote: “The man had had a cold.” Since James’ answer was right, it had had a better effect on the teacher.
A few word substitutions and brackets to identify clauses will make this more clear.
James, [while John had written “had,”] had written “had had”; “had had” had left a better effect on the teacher.
The double “had” — called past perfect tense — puts the action further back in time, suggesting that the man had had a cold but doesn’t anymore.
7. Rose rose to put rose roes on her rows of roses.
Now, this sentence deals with homophones, words that sound the same with different meaning.
In this example, we have:
- Rose, a woman.
- rose, the verb meaning to get up.
- rose, the flower.
- rose, the colour.
- roes, the fish eggs (in this case, used as fertiliser).
- rows, the lines.
A woman named Rose got up to put rose-coloured fish eggs on her rows of roses.
8. If it is it, it is it; if it is it is it, it is.
This example has nothing to do with parts of speech or verb tense. Only massive substitutions can save us now.
If A is B, then B is C; If the idea is [that] A is C, then the idea is [correct].
9. That that exists exists in that that that that exists exists in.
The various forms of “that” affect this example, too. We’ll switch the demonstrative adjective “that” with “this” and the relative pronoun “that” with “which.” And when we have two examples of the verb “exist” next to each other, we’ll change the second to “occur.”
[The fact] that “that” exists occurs in a situation which this “that” exists [also] occurs in.
Essentially, the two different versions of “that” in this sentence, exist in some situation simultaneously.
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