List of linguistic example sentences

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The following is a partial list of linguistic example sentences illustrating various linguistic phenomena.


Different types of ambiguity which are possible in language.

Lexical ambiguity[edit]

Demonstrations of words which have multiple meanings dependent on context.

  • In port, the portly porter ported the port, through the port port. (At the dock, the fat mover moved the wine, through the left window)
  • Will Will will Will's will to Will? (Will Will [a person] will [bequeath] Will's [second person] will [a document] to Will [a third person]? Alternatively, "Will Will will Will Will's will?")
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
  • Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. (Buffaloes from Buffalo, NY, whom buffaloes from Buffalo bully, bully buffaloes from Buffalo.)
  • Rose rose to put rose roes on her rows of roses. (Robert J. Baran) (Rose [a person] rose [stood] to put rose [pink-colored] roes [fish eggs as fertilizer] on her rows of roses [flower].)
  • James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher[1] (With punctuation: "James, while John had had 'had', had had 'had had'. 'Had had' had had a better effect on the teacher.")
  • That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is (Grammatically corrected as: "That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.")
  • If it is it, it is it. If it is, it is it, it is! (If an object is the object, it is the object. If it is the object, then it is the object, it is!)
  • A ship-shipping ship shipping shipping ships.
  • He jarred ajar a jar of Jar-Jar's jarred charred chard and char giardiniera.
  • That that exists exists in that that that that exists exists in.
  • Can can can can can can can can can can. ("Examples of the can-can dance that other examples of the same dance are able to outshine, or figuratively to put into the trashcan, are themselves able to outshine examples of the same dance." It could alternatively be interpreted as a question, "Is it possible for examples of the dance that have been outshone to outshine others?" or several other ways.)
  • If police police police police, who police police police? Police police police police police police.[2] (If the police police is what you might call the people who supervise, monitor, and maintain order amongst the regular police force, then who, in turn, supervises the police police? The answer: the police police police. Hyphenating the noun constructs makes this easier to follow. Therefore, [The] police-police [, that the] police-police-police police [, themselves] police [the] police, which means that "the police-police, who are policed by the police-police-police, are themselves responsible for policing the regular police force". In these sentences, the word police is used both as a collective noun [i.e. "police force"] and a verb [i.e. "to police someone or something"]. This clause is also a reduced relative clause, so the word that, which could appear between the second and third words of the sentence, is omitted.)
  • In a similar vein, Martin Gardner offered the example: "Wouldn't the sentence 'I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign' have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?"[3]

Syntactic ambiguity[edit]

Demonstrations of ambiguity between alternative syntactic structures underlying a sentence.

  • I saw the man with the binoculars.
  • They are hunting dogs.
  • Free whales.
  • Police help dog bite victim.
  • He saw that gas can explode.
  • Turn right here...
  • We saw her duck.[4]
  • "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." (Groucho Marx, Animal Crackers (1930))[5]
  • Ship sails tomorrow.
  • Book stays in London.
  • Wanted: a nurse for a baby about twenty years old.
  • The girl in the car that needed water is waiting.
  • Did you ever hear the story about the blind carpenter who picked up his hammer and saw?
  • Those prosecutors have been trying to lock him up for ten years.
  • Flying planes can be dangerous.
  • I once saw a deer riding my bicycle.
  • Look at the dog with one eye.

Syntactic ambiguity, incrementality, and local coherence[edit]

Demonstrations of how incremental and (at least partially) local syntactic parsing leads to infelicitous constructions and interpretations.

Scope ambiguity and anaphora resolution[edit]

  • Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.[8]
  • Somewhere in Britain, some woman has a child every thirty seconds.


  • The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.[9]

Word order[edit]

Order of adjectives[edit]

  • The red big balloon.

Ending sentence with preposition[edit]

Prescriptive grammar has in the past prohibited "preposition stranding": ending sentences with prepositions (traditionally defined). This "rule" appears to have been invented in 1672 by John Dryden; for a long time thereafter it was uncritically recited. It had no basis in linguistic fact in 1672 and has none now.[10]


  • This is the sort of English up with which I will not put. (Attributed by Gowers to Winston Churchill. There is no convincing evidence that Churchill said this, and good reason to believe that he did not.[11]) The sentence "does not demonstrate the absurdity of using [prepositional phrase] fronting instead of stranding; it merely illustrates the ungrammaticality resulting from fronting something that is not a constituent".[12]

Compound use[edit]

  • "A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, 'What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?'"[13]
  • What did you turn your socks from inside out to outside in for?


Parallel between noun phrases and verb phrases with respect to argument structure
  • The enemy destroyed the city.
  • The enemy's destruction of the city.

Neurolinguistic examples[edit]


Sentences with unexpected endings.

  • She spread the bread with socks.[14]

Combinatorial complexity[edit]

Demonstrations of sentences which are unlikely to have ever been said, although the combinatorial complexity of the linguistic system makes them possible.

Non-English examples[edit]


  • Gdaa-naanaanaa, Anna, naa?, meaning "We should fetch Anna, shouldn't we?".[15]


  • King Edward II of England was killed, reportedly after Adam of Orleton, one of his gaolers, received a message, probably from Mortimer, reading "Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est". This can be read either as "Edwardum occidere nolite; timere bonum est" ("Do not kill Edward; it is good to be afraid [to do so]") or as "Edwardum occidere nolite timere; bonum est" ("Do not be afraid to kill Edward; [to do so] is good"). This ambiguous sentence has been much discussed by various writers, including John Harington[16] and contributors to Notes and Queries.[17]
  • Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis.

Mandarin Chinese[edit]

  • Various sentences using the syllables , , , , and ma are often used to illustrate the importance of tones to foreign learners. One example: Chinese: 妈妈骑马马慢妈妈骂马; pinyin: māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn, māma mà mǎ; literally: "Mother is riding a horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse".[18]
  • Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den: poem of 92 characters, all with the sound shi (in 4 different tones) when read in Modern Standard Mandarin



  • Jedli na hoře bez holí, meaning either "they ate elderberries on a mountain using a stick" or "they ate elderberry on a mountain without any sticks" or "they ate elderberry on a mountain to eat their sorrow away"; depending on the phrasing or a correct placement or punctuation, at least 7 meanings can be obtained. Replacing "na hoře" by "nahoře", one obtains 5 more meanings. If also separating words using spaces is permitted, the total number of known possible meanings rises up to 58.[19]


  • In Gyeongsang dialect, the repetition of the syllable ("ga") with the right intonation can form meaningful phrases. For example:
    • "가가 가가?" which means "Are they the one we talked about?"
    • "가가 가가가" which means "Since they took it away"
    • "가가 가가가?" which means "Are they the one with the surname Ga?"[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 3802 - Operator Jumble
  2. ^ Gärtner, Hans-Martin (2002). Generalized Transformations and Beyond: Reflections on Minimalist Syntax. Akademie Velag. p. 58. ISBN 978-3-05-003246-7. 
  3. ^ Gardner, Martin (2006). Aha! A Two Volume Collection: Aha! Gotcha Aha! Insight. The Mathematica Association of America. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-88385-551-5. 
  4. ^ Solutions to Semantics Problems. Archived from the original on 7 August 2003.
  5. ^ "Animal Crackers (1930): Quotations". IMDb. 
  6. ^ Tabor, Whitney; Galantucci, Bruno; Richardson, Daniel (2004). "Effects of merely local syntactic coherence on sentence processing" (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language 50 (4): 355–370. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2004.01.001. ISSN 0749-596X. 
  7. ^ Christianson, Kiel; Hollingworth, Andrew; Halliwell, John F.; Ferreira, Fernanda (2001). "Thematic Roles Assigned along the Garden Path Linger". Cognitive Psychology 42 (4): 368–407. doi:10.1006/cogp.2001.0752. ISSN 0010-0285. 
  8. ^ CSI 5386 Donkey Sentence Discussion at the Wayback Machine (archived 16 May 2007)
  9. ^ Kimball, John (1973). "Seven principles of surface structure parsing in natural language". Cognition 2: 15–47. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(72)90028-5. 
  10. ^ Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; ISBN 0-521-43146-8), p.627.
  11. ^ Even the Churchill Centre describes this as "An invented phrase put in Churchill's mouth". "Quotations and Stories", the Churchill Centre. The origin of the anecdote is investigated by Benjamin G. Zimmer in "A misattribution no longer to be put up with", Language Log, 12 December 2004. Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  12. ^ Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p.629. For more detail on the fallaciousness of this example as a claimed demonstration of the silliness of a (silly) rule, see Pullum, "A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put".
  13. ^ White, Martha, ed. (2011). In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America's Most Companionable of Writers. Cornell University Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-8014-6367-9. 
  14. ^ Kutas, Marta; Hillyard, Steven A. (1980). "Reading senseless sentences: brain potentials reflect semantic incongruity". Science 207 (4427): 203–205. doi:10.1126/science.7350657. PMID 7350657. 
  15. ^ Valentine, J.R. Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar. University of Toronto Press. 2001.
  16. ^ I.Reed et al: A Select Collection of Old Plays (vol 2), 1825
  17. ^ Notes and Queries, 18 July 1868
  18. ^ "老外学中文都要从"妈妈骑马马慢妈妈骂马"开始么 (Do all foreigners learning Chinese start with 'māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn, māma mà mǎ'?)". Baidu Tieba (Baidu forums). 1 July 2010. Retrieved 27 September 2010. 
  19. ^ "Registrační záznam kalambůru č. 71". Sbírka kalambůrů Jakuba Těšínského. 31 July 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2014. 
  20. ^ "가가 가가". 엔하위키 미러. 28 November 2014. Retrieved 2014-11-28. 

External links[edit]