Confusing Sentences That Actually Make Sense

Grammarly, English, sentence

Grammarly, English, sentenceLet’s face it: Sometimes the English language can be downright bizarre. The plural of ox is oxen while the plural of box is boxes, ‘rough’ rhymes with ‘gruff’ even though the two words only have two letters in common, and there are actually more than nine hundred exceptions to the infamous “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” rule.

If you’re still not convinced that the English language is full of oddities and conundrums take a look at these five wacky sentences that are actually grammatically correct.

1All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life.

Well, talk about lexical ambiguity. But as strange as this sentence might sound, it is actually grammatically correct. The sentence relies on a double use of the past perfect. The two instances of “had had” play different grammatical roles in the sentences—the first is a modifier while the second is the main verb of the sentence.

2One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

This famous Groucho Marx joke takes advantage of the fact that the same sentence can often be interpreted in more than one way. The first sentence can be read in two distinct ways: A) The man shot an elephant while he was wearing his pajamas or B) The man shot an elephant that was wearing his pajamas. It’s unclear who is wearing the pajamas, the man or the elephant. Most people interpret the sentence the first way and are subsequently startled to read the second part of the joke.

3The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.

This is what we call a garden path sentence. Though grammatically correct, the reader’s initial interpretation of the sentence may be confusing, at best. In other words, the sentence has taken the reader down a dead-end.

Here, “complex” may be interpreted as an adjective and “houses” may be interpreted as a noun. Readers are immediately confused upon reading that the complex houses “married,” interpreting “married” as the verb. How can houses get married? In actuality, “complex” is the noun, “houses” is the verb, and “married” is the adjective. The sentence is trying to express the following: Single soldiers, as well as married soldiers and their families, reside in the complex.

4The man the professor the student has studies Rome.

This awkward but grammatically correct sentence is a product of what is known as center embedding. In English we can typically put one clause inside of another without any problem. We can take “the man studies Rome” and add a bunch of additional information between the noun and the verb. However, the more information that is added the harder it is to interpret the sentence.

In this particular case the sentence conveys the following: The student has the professor who knows the man that studies ancient Rome. Each noun corresponds to a verb (the man studies, the student has). But because of the sentence’s style this is hard to decipher. Remember: just because a sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it is acceptable stylistically.

5Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. You read that sentence right— it reads “buffalo” eight times. You see, “buffalo” is a noun that refers to a large, shaggy-manned North American bison, a city in upstate New York, and a verb that means, “to intimidate.” First devised by professor William J. Rapaport in 1972, this notorious sentence plays on reduced relative clauses, different part-of-speech readings of the same word, and center embedding. It’s also a pretty prime example of how homonyms (words that share spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings) can really confuse things.

While it might be hard to parse the sentence is coherent. If you stare at it long enough the true meaning may even miraculously come to you: “Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community, also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.” For further clarification you might also want check out English indie rock band Alt-J’s song “Buffalo,” which was famously inspired by this conundrum of a sentence and used in the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook.

So, in conclusion: English is weird. But in spite of its oddities it is also a strangely beautiful language. You can do all sorts of crazy things with it without breaking any rules. The bounds of proper English are virtually endless – test them in your writing today!

Weekly Grammar Tips
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Comments 0
19 comments
Brian
Brian

I hope I'm not the only one to notice that #4 is missing a verb, i.e. it should have read, "The man the professor the student has knows studies Rome."

Brian
Brian

The man the professor the student has studies Rome

Brian
Brian

(This was accidentally posted incomplete.)

pukpuk
pukpuk

Haven't you heard about comas?

chomleigh
chomleigh

apparently there are five occasions when the word and can be used together with and (and and) in a sentence ? 

JohnBeton
JohnBeton

My favourite is the comparison of use of "had" and "had had" in essays by Tom and John.

Tom, whist John had had "had", had had "had had".  "Had had" had been correct.

Dan
Dan

Ok, number one is not grammatically correct, although it has become commonly used slang. Had had is always wrong. Any time you use it you should just be using one had. The second had is used redundantly to add specifics that it doesn't actually convey and which could be more accurate and grammatically correct if replaced with several other words. Number 3 is missing a comma, so it's grammatically incorrect. Number 5 is grammatically correct, although buffalo is rarely ever used to mean intimidate. I'd never heard it used that way until now and I had to look it up to make sure. And I've lived all over the us. The description of the sentence is wrong, however. It actually reads that the intimated/intimidating bison in new york intimate/are intimidated by intimidating/intimidated bison in the intimidated/intimidating new york. That makes 8 buffalos. The example can't be construed as 6 or 7 buffalos, depending on how you choose to read it.

JoThurner
JoThurner

@Dan Now, I am not a native English speaker, so please excuse me if I am mistaken on this, but as far as I know, "had had" can very well be correct, if it is used in a past tense context to describe an action preceding the "actual" action -- as in, for example, "she gave me the book I had wanted for years." Even though I do agree that, stylistically, it might be preferable to rephrase this sentence, grammatically, it is perfectly correct.

LorrieBlackburn
LorrieBlackburn

In the fifth example, wouldn't "Buffalo" be used as a proper noun three times in that sentence? It needs to be capitalized, which does make it somewhat more readable. Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Janferie
Janferie

As a Brit, I have never, ever heard of the verb " To buffalo ". I have lived in Massachusets, Texas and Florida over many years. Are you certain of your facts?

Jean
Jean

@Janferie Buffalo as a verb means to intimidate, overawe, or hoodwink. It is a form of  U.S. slang.


mandz555
mandz555

There is a mistake in point number 1. Had had had had is an example of the double use of the PAST Perfect not the present perfect!! 

rbdj
rbdj

I would like to see the buffalo sentence written in past tense to show the present tense a little clearer. The capitalization from Roger (which I do not think is entirely correct) would assist also.

Roger
Roger

It should have been, "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Shouldn't it? Interestingly, Grammarly accepts it as correct, but not "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo" (noun string). Keep smiling!

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