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Ambiguities

Anything that is said to be ambiguous is open to more than one interpretation. Sentences and words that are ambiguous have more than one possible meaning.

Put the box on the table by the window in the kitchen is an ambiguous sentence. It could mean any of the following:

  • Put the box onto the table that is by the window in the kitchen.
  • Take the box that is on the table and put it by the window in the kitchen.
  • Take the box off the table that is by the window and put it in the kitchen.
To understand the first and third meanings, it may be helpful to imagine that in the kitchen there are two tables: one by the window and one not.

Ambiguous Newspaper Headlines

Newspaper headlines need to be as short as possible, so whilst they obey grammatical rules, they tend to omit little, unimportant words like the and is. But are these words unimportant? The result of leaving them out can result in highly ambiguous sentences, which are often quite amusing.

These are real newspaper headlines:

  • KIDS MAKE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS
  • GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE
  • MILK DRINKERS ARE TURNING TO POWDER
  • DRUNK GETS NINE MONTHS IN VIOLIN CASE
  • See Many More Ambiguous Funny Newspaper Headlines Here!

Garden Path Sentences

Can you understand these sentences? They are all grammatical, but because of ambiguity we find them difficult to understand (explanations here).

  • Fat people eat accumulates.
  • The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  • The girl told the story cried.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • I know the words to that song about the queen don't rhyme.
  • See Many More Garden Path Sentences Here!

Also in our Garden Path ambiguity section, you will learn the meanings of these linguistic terms lexical ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, local ambiguity, and golbal ambiguity.

More on Ambiguity

Browse our wordplay book shop for reviews and recommendations of related books. In the Ambiguity Section, you will find books of puns (which take advantage of linguistic ambiguity), as well as more ambiguous newspaper headlines, and more academic books about ambiguity in linguistics.

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