Syntactic Ambiguity – English Language at its Funniest

No wait, don’t run away, please don’t be put off by the term “syntactic ambiguity” – yes I know it sounds dry and a bit like what you learnt in school and never want to learn again, it’s fun. In fact it’s one of the most amusing facets of the English language. Don’t believe me? Don’t know what it is? Well, here’s one of my favourite examples.

Young Girls Wanted for Pickling and Bottling

Basically, syntactic ambiguity demonstrates a confusion in the meaning of a sentence. If there is more than one possible meaning then the sentence is syntactically ambiguous. These are good examples:

  • I saw the man with the binoculars – Did I have the binoculars or did he?
  • Look at that dog with one eye – Am I to close an eye and look at the dog or does the dog have one eye?
  • I watched her duck – Does she have a duck that I watched or did she duck out of the way?
  • The peasants are revolting – noun or verb?
  • They are cooking apples – A comment about the apple variety or about what people are doing to apples?

You get the idea, it’s about poor sentence structure and words that can have multiple meanings when used in a certain order, without correct punctuation, or for any other reason, can gave an ambiguous meaning.

So let’s get back to the reason you came here… the funnies!

Toilet Out of Order. Please Use Floor Below – oo-er, are you sure?

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we – George W. Bush said this. The scary thing is, you know what he means but it doesn’t come out as intended.

Stolen painting found by tree – An actual newspaper headline. Good old Treebeard!

Police help dog bite victim – An eye for an eye and a bite for a bite.

Free Cash – Not so much these days (because they have added “withdrawals” after “cash”) but ATMs used to have this term to denote that they do not charge for cash withdrawals.

British left waffles on Falklands – This too was a headline. Did the British political left waste time over The Falklands or did the British physically leave waffles on the Falkland Islands?

A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day. She said, ‘Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?’ I said, ‘All right, but we’re not going to get much done.’ – A joke by comedian Jimmy Carr

What are some of your favourites?

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11 responses to “Syntactic Ambiguity – English Language at its Funniest”

  1. Oh those are good ones. When reading in context, a lot of those are understandable, but yeah, I’m sure I’m guilty of writing syntactic ambiguity. That sign is terrible! But not sure how to fix it. How about: Young Girls Wanted for Job of Pickling and Bottling?

    I don’t have any good examples at the moment, but will be on the lookout for ’em!

    1. Umm, perhaps. Job vacancy: Picking and Bottling, Young Girls Preferred?

      Even so, the sign probably breaks rules on both age and gender discrimination!

      1. Well, yeah, there’s that!

  2. Back when I worked designing tricks for magicians I used all kinds of syntactic ambiguities to write patter for the performer.
    “playing card tricks can be fun”,
    Often lumped in, but in fact slightly different are scope ambiguities, such as
    “An audience of old men and women” (are the women old too?)

    1. That’s some good ones

  3. I love syntactic ambiguity! It’s one of the most fun things about our language and really, along with good old homophones lies at the root of pun type humour and double entendre. The examples here are brilliant especially the George Bush one! Haha! I also like how misplaced punctuation can have a similar effect.

    1. Ah misplaced punctuation, or non-existent in this case, can have embarrassing effects: “I like cooking my children and my pets”

  4. So what exactly you mean to say? Does the sentence “toilet is out of order….please use the floor below” contains some grammatical mistake?If there is any error,please provide the correct sentence that well describes the meaning.If not,give me a reason.

    1. The sentence is wrong as the wording suggests that it invites people to urinate on the floor beneath the sign. What it should have read was: “This toilet is out order, please use the alternative toilet on the floor below”.

      Does that make more sense?

  5. I would like to ask you about the type of ambiguity in this sentence: They are playing cards
    Is it syntactic related to the structure of the sentence or lexical related to the word cards?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. That’s an interesting one. I would say it’s lexical related to the “playing”. I don’t think the structure is at fault, but the intended meaning of those two words. The ambiguity relates to whether the world “playing” is a verb or a noun.

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