Sunday, March 29, 2009

New t-shirt idea: grammatically correct sentence.

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." is a grammatically correct sentence used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated constructs. It has been discussed in literature since 1972 when the sentence was used by William J. Rapaport, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo.[1] It was posted to Linguist List by Rapaport in 1992.[2] It was also featured in Steven Pinker's 1994 book The Language Instinct.

Sentence construction

The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word "buffalo". In order of their first use, these are

Marking each "buffalo" with its use as shown above gives

Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

Thus, the sentence when parsed reads as a description of the pecking order in the social hierarchy of buffaloes living in Buffalo:

[Those] (Buffalo buffalo) [whom] (Buffalo buffalo buffalo) buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).
[Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.
Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.
THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo.

"Buffalo buffalo (subject) [which the] Buffalo buffalo (Indirect object) buffalo [verb] buffalo [another verb] Buffalo buffalo [Direct Object]. [Noun], (which the) [Noun verb] [verb] [noun].

It may be revealing to read the sentence replacing all instances of the animal buffalo with "people" and the verb buffalo with "intimidate". The sentence then reads

"Buffalo people [whom] Buffalo people intimidate [also happen to] intimidate Buffalo people."

Preserving the meaning more closely, substituting the synonym "bison" for "buffalo" (animal), "bully" for "buffalo" (verb) and leaving "Buffalo" to mean the city, yields

'Buffalo bison Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison', or:
'Buffalo bison whom other Buffalo bison bully themselves bully Buffalo bison'.

To further understand the structure of the sentence, one can replace "Buffalo buffalo" with any number of noun phrases. Rather than referring to "Buffalo buffalo" intimidating other "Buffalo buffalo", one can use noun phrases like "Alley cats", "Junkyard dogs", and "Sewer rats". The sentence then reads

"Alley cats [whom] Junkyard dogs intimidate [also happen to] intimidate Sewer rats."

This has the same sentence structure as 'Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo'.


If the capitalization is ignored, the sentence can be read another way:

Buffaloc buffaloa buffalov Buffaloc buffaloa Buffaloc buffaloa buffalov.

That is, bison from Buffalo intimidate (other) bison from Buffalo that are intimidated by bison from Buffalo.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Suggestion: You could also diagram the sentence, like we did in grammar school back in the day.