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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