Ambiguous Syntax

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Wesley: I'm a rogue demon hunter now.

Cordelia: Wow... so, what's a rogue demon?
Angel, "Parting Gifts"

A simple statement becomes a bit of wordplay caused by an unclear use of a modifier. This is also known as a "syntactic ambiguity" or "squinting construction".

This typically occurs through the use of multiple nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc, in the same sentence, in such a way that it's difficult or even impossible to determine which adjective, verb, etc, applies to each noun. As a result, it's possible to interpret the sentence as having two or more meanings which are sufficiently different that the difference could potentially be very important to the reader or the plot. In some cases, there is only only one technically, grammatically, or logically correct interpretation, but it's so easy to misinterpret or mis-write that most people end up getting it wrong at first. In other cases, multiple interpretations are arguably grammatically correct.

In both Real Life and fiction, this is usually Played for Laughs, because the incorrect interpretation typically leads to an absurdity. A "man eating chicken" (note missing hyphen) seems to be an especially popular variant.

Another popular comedic variant is "You see this object here? When I nod my head, hit it as hard as you can."

On a more serious note, however, ambiguous syntax is sometimes used in false advertising so that the advertiser can claim they explained everything, and it was the consumer's fault for misinterpreting the statement. Likewise, in myth and legend, prophecy often includes ambiguous syntax, to make it more difficult to determine the exact details of a predicted event until it actually occurs. It is especially abused by the Literal Genie, to grant a wish in a way not intended by the speaker.

The Other Wiki lists more examples here. Note that this is easier to pull off in English than in most other languages, because English has neither grammatical genders (in French, for example, you would know that the feminine adjectives could only apply to the feminine noun) nor cases (in German, you would know that the dative adjectives could only apply to the indirect object of the sentence), leaving a lot more room for ambiguity.

Subtrope to Double Meaning. Compare Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma, Prophecy Twist, False Reassurance, Exact Words, Confusing Multiple Negatives, and I Know You Know I Know.

Examples of Ambiguous Syntax include:


Advertising

  • Invoked in an ad for Wolf Insurance; that is, an insurance company owned by a person named Wolf, serving the Lehigh Valley. It shows Little Red Riding Hood going through the forest when she hears some growling, and brandishes legal documents before continuing unmolested, "Wolf Insurance" here implying insurance against wolves.

Card Games

  • The card game Munchkin's "... Of Doom!" card, resulting in "Bow with Ribbons... of Doom!", the question came up whether it was the bow or the ribbons that were 'of doom'.
    • Then add in to this the "...of my Grandfather" card from Munchkin Fu and you can have such gems as the "Big Black .45... of Doom... of my Grandfather" which leads one to think that the gun killed the grand father.


Comic Books

  • Sometimes used as one of Roger the Dodger's scams in The Beano, such as selling tickets to see the "Man Eating Fish"...which turns out to be a man, eating fish (and chips).


Film

  • In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Eglantine is rummaging through her ingredients and pulls out "Poisoned Dragon's Liver." One of the children asks, "Did they poison the dragon, or just the liver?"
  • From Mary Poppins: "I met a man with a wooden leg named Smith". "What was the name of his other leg?"
  • Clue:

Mrs. White: ...he had threatened to kill me in public.
Miss Scarlet: Why would he want to kill you in public?
Wadsworth: I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her.

    • Also

Colonel Mustard: Wadsworth, am I right in thinking there's nobody else in this house?
Wadsworth: Um... no.
Colonel Mustard: Then there is someone else in this house?
Wadsworth: Sorry, I said "no" meaning "yes."
Colonel Mustard: "No" meaning "yes?" Look, I want a straight answer, is there someone else, or isn't there, yes, or no?
Wadsworth: No.
Colonel Mustard: No there is, or no there isn't?
Wadsworth: Yes.
Mrs. White: [shatters glass] PLEASE!

  • Lesbian Vampire Killers: a debate occurred on this very wiki wondered whether this movie would be about lesbians who killed vampires, lesbian vampires who were killers or people who killed lesbian vampires. It turned out to be both the first and third options.
  • In the same vein, Ninja Assassin managed to accomplish this with only two words, as the trailers did not clarify whether the film was about a Ninja who assassinates people, or people who assassinate ninja. (As it turned out, it was about both.)
  • Eight Legged Freaks. The fact that the title is not hyphenated seems to mean that it could be read as "Eight freaks with legs", rather than "Freaks with eight legs".
  • There's also this little exchange from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Perry: I want you to picture a bullet inside your head right now. Can you do that for me?
Orderly: Fuck you. Anyway, that's ambiguous.
Perry: Ambiguous? No, I don't think so.
Harry: No, I think what he means is that when you say 'Picture it inside your head' okay is that that a bullet will be inside your head? Or picture it IN your head?
Perry: Harry, will you shut up?
Harry: Well, he's got a point.

  • The Little Rascals had a three foot man eating chicken in a freak show. It was one of the kids wearing a fake mustache, and eating from a bucket of chicken.
  • Airplane! has one character speaking of a "drinking problem" while narrating a flashback, and a second later we see he in fact meant a problem with his ability to drink, namely that he was spilling the whole glass on his face.
    • Airplane used this trope for a lot of its humor:

Ted: It's an entirely different type of flying, altogether.
Dr. Rumack and Randy, in unison: It's an entirely different type of flying.
---
Dr. Rumack: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
Dr. Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.
---
Hanging Lady: Nervous?
Ted: Yes.
Hanging Lady: First time?
Ted: No, I've been nervous lots of times.

      • Some of these are repeated ad nauseum and it was awesome.
  • Animal Crackers: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I dunno."
  • From The King's Speech:

Bertie: (telling a story to his daughters) This was very inconvenient for him, because he loved t-t-to hold his princesses in his arms. But you can't if you're a penguin, because y-you have wings, like herrings.
Margaret: Herrings don't have wings.
Bertie: Penguins have wings which are sh-sh-shaped like herrings.

Shooter McGavin: You're in big trouble though, pal. I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!
Happy Gilmore: (laughing) You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?


Literature

New York's first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.
(...) In the lefthand version of the third example, the reader's heart goes out to those 18 poor fellows frozen in a steel tank.

  • Panda: Eats Shoots and Leaves.
  • The Discworld book The Truth has a few jokes about not only ambiguous headlines, but trying to compensate for them, such as "Patrician Attacks Clerk With Knife (he had the knife, not the clerk)".
  • In Blindsight by Peter Watts, a linguist intentionally uses an extremely ambiguous sentence to determine whether she's talking to an actual person or a mere syntax engine.
  • In a Grail Quest game book, you enter a room containing 'a man eating plant'. The next line informs you that the plant he's eating is a carrot.
  • From The Fourth Bear:

"The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in the hospital."
"Critical?"
"Yes. Don't like the food, bed's uncomfortable, waiting list's too long. Usual crap."

Ford: You'd better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like being drunk.
Arthur: What's so unpleasant about being drunk?
Ford: You ask a glass of water.

  • King Pyrrhus is said to have consulted an oracle of the god Apollo about whether he should fight the Romans. Apollo advised him Aio te, Aeacida, Romanos vincere posse, (Ennius, Annales fr. 167). The sentence may be translated “I say, O son of Ajax, that you the Romans can conquer” –meaning either “You can conquer the Romans” or The Romans can conquer you”. (Cicero, De Divinatione ii. 56, § 116, remarked that it was odd that Apollo should speak in Latin.) This makes it Older Than Feudalism. The line became a proverbial example of amphiboly (ambiguous grammatical structure), and is quoted as such by Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part 2, I. iv. 62).
  • Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, supplementary material for A Series of Unfortunate Events, contains many ambiguous sentences. Most notably, a photograph of a baby labeled "Who took this?"


Live Action TV

Topanga: And we're living in an apartment where a guy was shot over a salad, part of which was still stuck on the wall!
Angela: ...the guy or the salad?
Topanga: I don't know. I ate it anyway.

  • In an episode of The Latest Buzz, a psychic tells Michael that he will encounter "a 6-foot man eating chicken". He then sees his teacher, who is 6 feet tall, eating chicken and becomes convinced that the psychic is genuine.
  • Monk:

Randy: That makes your cousin a former cop shooter.
Vince: Former what?
Randy: Former cop shooter.
Vince: You mean he used to shoot cops?
Randy: No. He shot someone who used to be a cop.
Vince: Why didn't you say that?
Randy: I did. It's the same thing.
Vince: It's not the same thing at all! It's not even close!

  • This is the entire point of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch "Robot Repair."
  • On an episode of Carnivale, Stumpy did a spiel promising to show "the fearsome Man Eating Chicken." When the curtain was pulled aside, another carny was sitting at a table, eating... well, you can guess.
  • An episode of Perfect Strangers has Larry and Balki trying to fix the plumbing in their apartment.

Larry (holding pipe): Now, when I nod my head, you hit it with the hammer.

  • On one episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there was some discussion as to the meaning of the title of the movie: Teen-Age Strangler. There was a strangler, but it wasn't a teenager. And not all of the victims of the strangler were Teen-Age girls. So why is it titled Teen-Age Strangler?
  • Jokes based on this are part of Aaron Sorkin's Signature Style.

Abbey: Women talk about their husbands overshadowing their careers -- mine got eaten.
C.J.: Your husband got eaten?
Abbey: My career.

C.J.: Yeah, well, I'm on dangling-modifier patrol.
  • When Wesley first showed up on Angel, he announced that he had become a rogue demon hunter. Cordelia's response: "What's a rogue demon?"
  • In an episode of I Love Lucy, there was a comedic stage show featuring a "Man Eating Tiger"; Ricky holding a tiny, edible model tiger and taking a bite out of it.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: "Next week, part 2: Biggles Flies Undone."[1]
    • "In 1970 the British Empire lay in ruins, foreign nationals frequented the streets - many of them Hungarians (not the streets-the foreign nationals)."
  • In one of the Event sketches on That Mitchell and Webb Look, the announcer introduces the contestants as "Peter, who you may remember; and Sheila, who you're also permitted to remember."
  • Similar to the Mary Poppins example, on Open All Hours:

Arkwright (reading newspaper): "The police are looking for a small man with one eye". If he's that small, you'd think they'd use both eyes!


Music

I remember batting practice -- I put a baseball on a string
And I told this kid, "When I nod my head, haul off and hit that thing!"
Heh, gotta give him credit; he did exactly what I said
Cuz the second that I nodded... HE HIT ME IN THE HEAD!

  • Weird Al Yankovic's "Jurassic Park" has the line "A huge Tyrannosaurus ate our lawyer/Well I suppose that proves/They're really not all bad." The ambiguity is whether the T-Rex isn't all bad, for disposing of a lawyer, or the lawyer isn't all bad, either for providing sustenance/another target, or in the "not un-tasty" sense. Al says he left it ambiguous on purpose.
  • Mike Doughty's "Rising Sign" includes the deliberately ambiguous line "I resent the way you make me like myself". "Like" can be read as a verb or a preposition in the context, so it could mean either "I resent that you make me feel good about myself" or "I resent that you make me act in a way characteristic of myself".
  • The last verse of The Kinks' "Lola" ends in "...I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola". This could either mean that the naive narrator never found out that Lola was a man at all ("Lola and I are both glad that I am a man"), or that he did eventually figure it out and just doesn't mind ("I'm glad that Lola and I are both men").


Newspapers

  • Another ambiguous headline featuring this trope: "Man Eating Piranha Accidentally Sold as Pet Fish". Actually, probably most ambiguous headlines would qualify, depending on how loosely we define the trope. They're even more vulnerable to it than normal sentences due to omitting lots of grammatical features. The professionals call these crash blossoms.
    • The actual origin is from a headline Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms[2]
    • Also an example of why attention to punctuation is important. The headline would not be ambiguous if "man-eating" were hyphenated.
    • Some other notable crash blossoms are "Iraqi Head Seeks Arms" and "Police Help Dog Bite Victim."
    • When Ike Turner died, the New York Post failed to resist the temptation to run the headline "Ike Beats Tina to Death."
  • Robert Ripley, an American columnist, once wrote the supposed origin of the phrase "Pardon impossible. To be sent to Siberia", the meaning of which flips if the period is moved to become "Pardon. Impossible to be sent to Siberia".
  • Newspaper headlines are particularly vulnerable to this due to pressures of space requiring all words that seem superfluous to be removed. Another issue is the (especially British) newspaper tendency to build up absurd compound nouns referring back to previous stories: Buried Alive Fiance Gets 20 Years in Prison,[3] Sex Quiz Cricket Ace in Hotel Suicide Leap,[4] Whip rules furore claims first victim[5]


Newspaper Comics

  • Used in Dilbert, where an investment adviser describes a strategy in which his lawyers put the money in little bags and trained dogs bury them around town. He is asked whether they bury the bags or the lawyers, and replies that they've tried it both ways.
    • Another Dilbert example involved Ratbert having a cat trying to eat his head. Dogbert proposed a solution to Bob the Dinosaur: "I'll yank the cat off Ratbert's head, and you stomp on it." The next panel had Ratbert under Bob's foot and Dogbert saying, "In retrospect, I could have phrased that better."
  • There's a comic strip somewhere with a guy charging money to see a "Man Eating Chicken". Surprise, surprise, after the people had paid, they just ended up seeing an ordinary guy on a stage eating fried chicken from a bucket.


Puzzles


Radio

Tim: Barry, turn the radio on.
Barry: Certainly. (lecherously) Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? Oh, I want to stick my tongue in your aerial socket--
Tim: ...I meant switch it on.
Barry: Well, that's no fun.

    • Also:

Barry: I think I met your aunt, once.
Tim: ...I don't have an aunt Once. Once is a very silly name for an aunt. I did have an uncle, however...
Barry: However's a very silly name for an uncle!

  • The Goon Show did a subversion of the old "when I nod my head, hit it" gag in the 1950s.

Neddie: There, that did it! (To audience) Hands up all those who though I was gonna hit him on the nut.


Tabletop Games

  • In the RPG magazine Shadis, there was a puzzle-filled scenario that at one point featured a sign saying "DANGER! Man eating flowers!" Following the path would lead the characters to, what else, a man who was eating flowers. What many players would at this point fail to realize was that there was also danger.
  • There's a famous story about the playtesting of the first Magic: The Gathering cards where a the Richard Garfield had this exchange:

Tester: I think Time Walk is too powerful.
RG: Why?
Tester: I win every time I play it. *points to text* See it says 'target player loses next turn'.


Theater

  • Groucho Marx's famous line "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."
    • And his "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
    • "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is full of this. Possibly the best example:

The Player: The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: Good God. We're out of our depths here.
The Player: No, no, no! He hasn't got a daughter! The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: The old man is?
The Player: Hamlet... in love... with the old man's daughter... the old man... thinks.
Rosencrantz: Ah.

  • In the play A Village Fable, it's unclear whether the notorious Six-Fingered Man has three fingers on each hand or a total of 12.


Video Games

  • An Interactive Fiction game called The Six-Foot-Tall Man Eating Chicken.
  • An aspiring journalist talking about Troll Hunters in the Warcraft III preview days noted that "We don't know if they are orcs who hunt trolls or trolls that just hunt."
  • Touhou 8: Imperishable Night had a bit of fun with this, when Marisa points out the different meanings "troublesome youkai hunting" can have.
  • No-one's entirely sure whether GLaDOS is a Genetic Lifeform who is also a Disk Operating System, or whether she is a System for Operating Genetic Lifeforms and Disks.


Web Comics

"Anyway, hope you and little Jim are well. Send some chocolate or some pornography! The Forean stuff we have here just isn't doing it for us."

  • The title of Demon Eater is another "both" example: Saturno is a demon who eats, and an eater of demons.
  • In the Punyverse arc of Sluggy Freelance, after the transport that Torg and Riff are on leaves the planet, Lord Grater's men destroy the planet. Why? Because Lord Grater told them if any ship escaped the planet, they were to destroy it immediately. Cue Face Palm.
  • Partially Clips has this comic, of the missing-hyphen variety. What makes it funny is that the person in question deliberately misinterprets the sentence to make a point about grammar, despite the very clear intended meaning.
  • Xkcd's Hyphen and Jacket.
  • Pain Train: "All You Can Eat, Buffet" does not have the comma misplaced.

Web Original

From the Peanuts Just Bugs Me page:
Jesus, Lucy, Violet, and Patty are CRUEL to poor Charlie Brown! They expect him to get an over-commercialized tree, made of pink aluminum? Charlie brings back a tree that looks like one that would be next to the humble manger, and they all laugh at him! Even damned SNOOPY! Although it sets up a Crowning Moment Of Awesome with the "That's what Christmas is all about" speech, I just want to wring those three bitches' neck!!
Is it bad that I read the start of this entry as a list of 4 names, rather than an expletive and 3 names?
Jesus is laughing at Charlie Brown for having a great Christmas spirit! The irony!

Nope. I did it, too. As did my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
—Your parents are Ayn Rand and God?
  • The SCP Foundation has a "Six-Foot-Tall Man Eating Chicken." The SCP object is described as follows: "SCP-3467 is a six (6) foot tall, two hundred (200) pound man eating chicken. Subject is thirty five (35), slightly balding, dark brown hair and eyes, and slightly overweight. Name is Hank __________, and he has worked as a Level 1 cleanup crew for the past three years. Hank is never seen without a bucket of chicken, and only stops eating it when actually working, which is a rare occurrence in itself."


Western Animation

  • In The Tick (animation) episode in Europe, Tick encounters the two Fortissimo Brothers, who, he is told, have the strength of 10 men. He then asks, "Is that five men each or 20 all together?"
  • A sketch in Sheep in The Big City featured two daredevils attempting to perform a stunt with the man eating cheese. No, the cheese doesn't eat people, it was just a man... eating cheese.
  • An episode of Count Duckula has a joke involving the Dumb Muscle being given the instruction: "See this lever here? When I nod my head, I want you to hit it as hard as you can."
  • Paddington has also done the "when I nod my head, you hit it" joke. To Paddington's credit, he does ask Mr. Curry if he's sure that's what he wants, but Mr. Curry just tells him to be quiet and do as he's told...
  • From a House of Mouse short:

Mickey Mouse: Put down that broom and pack your bags! We're going Around the World in Eighty Days! Come on, let's go!
Goofy: What's the big hurry? We're not leavin' for eighty days.
Mickey: (Aside Glance.)

  • A vintage Looney Tunes short, "The Ducksters" has Daffy Duck as the host of a quiz show, "Brought to you by the Eagle Hand Laundry. Are your eagle's hands dirty?"


Real Life

  • Every trial attorney is taught the dangers of poorly chosen syntax with some variant of the following riposte by a cagey witness.

Atty: Mr. Smith, did you or did you not clandestinely meet with Miss Peters on that evening?
Witness: Yes.

    • While the opposing attorney could object to the question, a savvy attorney with a reliable witness will let it pass so the witness can get his jab in.
  • Averted almost entirely in languages like Lojban, where things like "rogue demon hunter" can be made to be exactly what you want. "Rogue demon hunter" taken word-for-word would translate into "rogue demon who at-unspecified-time hunts",[6] while you could easily use a couple extra words to specify whatever statement you want. Ironically, the trick is actually to decide how you want to describe "rogue"[7] and "demon".[8]
    • Hence the Light Bulb Joke about Lojban speakers: "One to figure out what to change it to and one to figure out what kind of bulb emits broken light."
  • While in languages like Swedish, composite words are very valuable. "Mörkhårig sjukgymnast" translates to dark-haired physiotherapist, while a "Mörk hårig sjuk gymnast" is a dark, hairy, sick gymnast.
    • Just as some of the hyphen-lacking examples mentioned, the syntax actually is non-ambigious... it is just that the small change of adding a space where no space should be, easily done by mistake, has a large impact on the meaning.
  • Introductory linguistics classes sometimes have homework assignments that involve analyzing the possible meanings of such phrases.
  • 1327, Earl Mortimer wanted to kill King Edward II, but did not want to leave incriminating evidence. Assassins demanded a written warrant. Mortimer wrote "Nolite Edwardum occidere timere bonum est." which depends on the comma: "Nolite Edwardum occidere , timere bonum est." = "Don't KILL Edward. It is good to fear." "Nolite Edwardum occidere timere , bonum est." = "Don't be AFRAID of killing Edward. All is well."
  • Lampshaded by two phrases commonly spread around to encourage proper comma usage:[9]
    1. "Let's eat, Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat Grandma!"
    2. "I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse." vs. "I helped my uncle jack off a horse."
  • Another one that crops up in syntactical studies: I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.
  • Another good one - 'Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off' - (obviously Charles the First cannot have done this, so add punctuation and voila 'Charles the First walked and talked - half an hour after, his head was cut off.'.
  • " A Woman without her man is useless." Is it "A woman: without her, man is useless" or is it " a woman, without her man, is useless"?
  • '"I see," said the blind man.' Is he saying he understands, or that he is possessed of the sense of sight? If the latter, then he is a liar. A variation on the joke that continues in the same vein goes '"I see," said the blind man, as he picked up the hammer and saw.'
  • This, encouraging the proper use of 'your' vs 'you're':

It's the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit.

  • A sign at a Souplantation (a all-you-can-eat, buffet-style restaurant in some areas of the U.S.) reads "Please eat all food on premises."
  • A popular image on the internet is of a facebook post a man made because he was angry saying "Fuckin a man." His friends proceed to complement him on his guts to come out of the closet to the world. He doesn't get it.
    • To clarify, "Fuckin a man" implies gay sex. "Fuckin a, man", which is what he meant, is angry sarcasm, the "A" being short for "Awesome".
  1. Or is that "Biggles' Fly's Undone"?
  2. Meaning that a violinist was both linked to the Japan Airlines crash - her father died in it - and has had her career prosper or 'blossom'.
  3. He wasn't buried alive; he was the fiance involved in the 'buried alive' case - that is, he buried his fiancee alive
  4. "Sex Quiz Cricket Ace" is the subject - a 'cricket ace' being investigated by police for possible sex crimes - at least until he killed himself by leaping from a hotel balcony
  5. The "Whip rules furore" - the controversy caused by new rules on whipping in horse racing - has claimed its first victim - someone resigned.
  6. rogue type-of demon type-of hunter
  7. vagrant, self-employed, or illegal?
  8. evil or anti-god (of what religion) mythical-humanoid? spirit and/or physical?
  9. that would normally have tone difference to clarify