The following is a partial list of linguistic example sentences illustrating various linguistic phenomena.
Different types of ambiguity which are possible in language.
Demonstrations of words which have multiple meanings dependent on context.
- 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.)
- Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. – Bison (the plural of "buffalos" or "buffalo" is also accepted) from Buffalo, New York, whom bison from Buffalo bully, bully bison from Buffalo.
- Police police Police police police police Police police. – Police officers from Police, Poland, whom police officers from Police patrol, patrol police officers from Police.
- 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 – With punctuation: "James, while John had had 'had', had had 'had had'. 'Had had' had had a better effect on the teacher", or "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".
- 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.
- 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?"
- The bears bear hard hard yarn yarns. (Daniel Handler) – The bears endure tiring and unpleasant long stories about hard yarn.
Demonstrations of ambiguity between alternative syntactic structures underlying a sentence.
- I made her duck.
- One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.
- Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
Syntactic ambiguity, incrementality, and local coherence
Demonstrations of how incremental and (at least partially) local syntactic parsing leads to infelicitous constructions and interpretations.
- Reduced relative clauses
Scope ambiguity and anaphora resolution
- The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.
- The editor authors the newspaper hired liked laughed.
- The man who the boy who the students recognized pointed out is a friend of mine.
Punctuation can be used to introduce ambiguity or misunderstandings where none needed to exist. One well known example, for comedic effect, is from A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (ignoring the punctuation provides the alternate reading).
- Enter QUINCE for the Prologue
- If we offend, it is with our good will.
- That you should think, we come not to offend,
- But with good will. To show our simple skill,
- That is the true beginning of our end.
- Consider then we come but in despite.
- We do not come as minding to content you,
- Our true intent is. All for your delight
- We are not here. That you should here repent you,
- The actors are at hand and by their show
- You shall know all that you are like to know.
- —ACT V, Scene i
Order of adjectives
- The big red balloon.
Ending sentence with preposition
- 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.) 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".
- "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?'"
Sentences with unexpected endings.
- She spread the bread with socks.
- More people have been to Russia than I have.
Demonstrations of sentences which are unlikely to have ever been said, although the combinatorial complexity of the linguistic system makes them possible.
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (Noam Chomsky): example that is grammatically correct but based on semantic combinations that are contradictory and therefore would not normally occur.
- Hold the news reader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.
Semantics and context
Demonstrations of sentences where the semantic interpretation is bound to context or knowledge of the world.
- The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam: ambiguous use of a pronoun: The word "it" refers to the table being made of Styrofoam; but "it" would immediately refer to the large ball if we replaced "Styrofoam" with "steel" without any other change in its syntactic parse.
- The bee landed on the flower because it had nectar: The pronoun "it" refers to the "flower" but changes to the "bee" if we replace "had" with "wanted".
- We bought the boys apples because they were so hungry: "they" refers to the boys, but if "hungry" is replaced with "cheap", with no grammatical change, it refers to the apples.
Conditionals where the prejacent ("if" clause) is not strictly required for the consequent to be true.
- There are biscuits on the table if you want some ("biscuit conditional")
- If I may be honest, you're not looking good
- Gdaa-naanaanaa, Aanaa, naa? meaning "We should fetch Ana, shouldn't we?".
- John, Archbishop of Esztergom (Kingdom of Hungary) was pressed to make a statement on the assassination of Gertrude of Merania, and on the first hand the assassination would have been beneficial for the Church but on the other hand taking part in an assassination may have caused him to lose his position and possibly life; so he wrote in 1213: "Reginam occidere nolite timere bonum est si omnes consentiunt ego non contradico". The sentence can be read as "Reginam occidere nolite, timere bonum est, si omnes consentiunt, ego non. Contradico." ("don't kill the Queen, it is good to be afraid, if you all agree I am not. I object."), or the opposite meaning "Reginam occidere nolite timere, bonum est; si omnes consentiunt ego non contradico." ("Do not be afraid to kill the Queen, it is good, if you all agree then I am not objecting."). It has been quoted by Boncompagno da Signa is his work Rhetorica novissima in 1235 and from there it has been part of the rhetorical education.
- 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.
- Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis.
- Various sentences using the syllables mā, má, mǎ, mà, 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; lit. 'Mother is riding a horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse'.
- Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den: poem of 92 characters, all with the sound shi (in four different tones) when read in Modern Standard Mandarin
- Although at first glance the single character sentence 子子子子子子子子子子子子 [ja] does not seem to make sense, when this sentence is read using the right readings of the kanji 子 (in the example it only borrows the pronunciation but not the meaning of the Logograms, like Man'yōgana), it means "the young of cat, kitten, and the young of lion, cub". This would be "猫之子、子猫、獅子之子、子獅子" if it were to be written semantically, with the genitive construction being inferred in the original. It is told in the work Ujishūi Monogatari that the Japanese poet Ono no Takamura used this reading to escape death.
- Jedli na hoře bez holí, meaning either "they ate elderberries on a mountain using a stick" or "they ate on a mountain without any sticks" or "they ate elderberry using a stick to eat their sorrow away"; depending on the phrasing or a correct placement or punctuation, at least 7 meanings can be obtained. By replacing "na hoře" by "nahoře", one obtains 5 more meanings. If separating words using spaces is also permitted, the total number of known possible meanings rises to 58.
- In Gyeongsang dialect, the repetition of the syllable 가 ("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?"
- A famous example for lexical ambiguity is the following sentence: "Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen hinterher.", meaning "When flies fly behind flies, then flies fly in pursuit of flies."[circular reference] It takes advantage of some German nouns and corresponding verbs being homonymous. While not noticeable in spoken language, in written language the difference shows: "Fliegen" ("flies"), being a noun, is written with a capital "F", whereas "fliegen" ("to fly"), being a verb, is not. The comma can be left out without changing the meaning. There are several variations of this sentence pattern, although they do not work as smoothly as the original. Dutch language shares this same example, with the noticeable difference of not capitalising the initials of nouns, making it "Als achter vliegen vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegen achterna."
- Kees Torn expanded on the example given in the German section ("Als achter vliegen vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegen achterna."), from which he created: "Als, in de plaats waar van de makkelijk te zeven zeven zeven zeven zeven zeven zeven, Zeven, zeven zeven zeven zeven zeven, zeven zeven zeven zeven zeven." which uses the fact that zeven has multiple roles: it is a number (seven), a verb (to sieve), a plural noun (sieves) and the name of a German town (Zeven). As such the translation is: "If, in the town where the easy to sieve sieves seven sieves sieve seven sieves, Zeven, seven sieves sieve seven sieves, seven sieves sieve seven sieves".
A famous example for lexical ambiguity in Persian is the following sentence:
بخشش لازم نیست اعدامش کنید
It can be read either as:
- بخشش، لازم نیست اعدامش کنید
which means "Forgiveness, you don't have to execute him/her"
- بخشش لازم نیست، اعدامش کنید
which means "No need to forgiveness, execute her/him"
- Wydrze wydrzę wydrze wydrze wydrze wydrzę which means "The young otter of the otter will steal the young otter from otter"
- Dział dział dział which means "The artillery department was knitting"
- Palmy palmy Palmy which means "Let's burn the palm trees in Palma"
- Garden path sentence, sentences that illustrate that humans process language one word at a time
- Gradient well-formedness
- One-syllable article, Chinese phonological ambiguity
- Paraprosdokian, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe the first part
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- 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.
- Snicket, Lemony (13 October 2006). The End. HarperCollins. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0-06-441016-8. Retrieved 3 November 2022.
- Jurafsky, Daniel; Martin, James H. (2000). Speech and Language Processing: An Introduction to Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics, and Speech Recognition: an introduction to natural language processing, computational linguistics, and speech recognition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-13-095069-6.
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- Fodor, Jerry; Lepore, Ernie (2004). "Out of Context". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. 78 (2): 83–84. doi:10.2307/3219726. ISSN 0065-972X. JSTOR 3219726. S2CID 18454403.
Groucho said, as everybody knows, 'I shot an elephant in my pajamas.' This sets up the infamous joke: 'How an elephant got into my pajamas I can't imagine. [Laughter].' What, exactly, happened here? We take the following to be untendentious as far as it goes: the conventions of English are in force, and they entail that there are two ways to read the set-up sentence. Either it expresses the thought (I, in my pajamas, shot an elephant) or it expresses the thought (I) (shot (an elephant in my pajamas)).
- 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. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.77.3953. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2004.01.001. ISSN 0749-596X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 July 2015.
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- Barker, Ken (2 October 1999). "CSI 5386: Donkey Sentence Discussion". University of Ottawa School of Information Technology and Engineering. Archived from the original on 16 May 2007.
'Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it' . . . : there is some single thing Y in the universe such that for every X in the universe if X is a farmer and Y is a donkey and X owns Y, then X beats Y. So the problem with the donkey sentence is that the scope of the variable corresponding to the donkey must be contained within the antecedent of the implication to prevent requiring the unconditional existence of the donkey. But the scope of the donkey variable must contain the consequent of the implication to allow the anaphoric reference!
- Kempen, Gerard; Vosse, Theo (1989). "Incremental Syntactic Tree Formation in Human Sentence Processing: a Cognitive Architecture Based on Activation Decay and Simulated Annealing" (PDF). Connection Science. 1 (3): 282. doi:10.1080/09540098908915642. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0012-25F8-8. ISSN 1360-0494. Archived (PDF) from the original on 14 October 2015.
The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.
- Braine, David (2014). Language and Human Understanding. CUA Press. p. 614. ISBN 9780813221748.
- "A Midsummer Night's Dream". CliffsNotes. CliffsNotes. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
- "Copywriting 101: The royal order of adjectives".
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The 'rule' was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden, who took exception to Ben Jonson's phrase the bodies that those souls were frighted from (1611). Dryden was in effect suggesting that Jonson should have written the bodies from which those souls were frighted, but he offers no reason for preferring this to the original.
- "Famous Quotations and Stories". The Churchill Centre. March 2009. Archived from the original on 10 September 2015. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
'This is the kind of tedious [sometimes "pedantic"] nonsense up with which I will not put!' . . . Verdict: An invented phrase put in Churchill's mouth
- Zimmer, Ben (12 December 2004). "A misattribution no longer to be put up with". Language Log. Archived from the original on 7 September 2015. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
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This example is based on a much-quoted joke attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, who is said to have annotated some clumsy evasion of stranding in a document with the remark: This is the sort of English up with which I will not put. Unfortunately, the joke fails because it depends on a mistaken grammatical analysis: in I will not put up with this sort of English the sequence up with this sort of English is not a constituent, up being a separate complement of the verb (in the traditional analysis it is an adverb). Churchill's example thus does not demonstrate the absurdity of using PP fronting instead of stranding: it merely illustrates the ungrammaticality resulting from fronting something which is not a constituent.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (8 December 2004). "A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put". Language Log. Archived from the original on 10 September 2015.
- 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.
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Hold the news reader's nose squarely waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.
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The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam.
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Gdaa-naanaanaa, Aanaa, naa? . . . 'We should fetch Anna, shouldn't we?'
- Hermann of Altach: Annales Hermanni (1137-1173)
- Alberic of Trois-Fontaines: Chronica Albrici Monachi Trium Fontium (1232-1251)
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- Collier, John Payne (1825). "Edward II". In Reed, Isaac; Gilchrist, Octavius (eds.). A Selection of Old Plays in Twelve Volumes. Vol. II. London: Septimus Prowett. p. 393. LCCN 12002796. OCLC 2075486.
Sir J. Harington has an Epigram (L. i. E. 83.) 'Of writing with double pointing,' which is thus introduced. 'It is said that King Edward, of Carnarvon, lying at Berkeley Castle, prisoner, a cardinal wrote to his keeper, Edwardum occidere noli, timere bonum est, which being read with the point at timere, it cost the king his life.'
- Addis, John, Junior (18 July 1868). "Adam of Orleton's Saying". Replies. Notes and Queries. 4. s4-II (29): 66. doi:10.1093/nq/s4-II.29.66c. ISSN 0029-3970. ADDIS18071868.
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- "The Trouble with NLP". Speculative Grammarian. Cartoon Theories of Linguistics. 153 (4). 2008. ISSN 1938-0720. OCLC 227210202. Archived from the original on 13 September 2015. Demonstrations of why these and similar examples are hard for computers to deal with when attempting natural language processing.