Ambiguous Syntax

Wesley: I'm a rogue demon hunter now.
Cordelia: Wow... so, what's a rogue demon?

A simple statement becomes a bit of wordplay caused by an unclear use of a modifier. This is also known as a "syntactic ambiguity" or "squinting construction".

This typically occurs through the use of multiple nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc, in the same sentence, in such a way that it's difficult or even impossible to determine which adjective, verb, etc, applies to each noun. As a result, it's possible to interpret the sentence as having two or more meanings which are sufficiently different that the difference could potentially be very important to the reader or the plot. In some cases, there is only only one technically, grammatically, or logically correct interpretation, but it's so easy to misinterpret or mis-write that most people end up getting it wrong at first. In other cases, multiple interpretations are arguably grammatically correct.

In both Real Life and fiction, this is usually Played for Laughs, because the incorrect interpretation typically leads to an absurdity. A "man eating chicken" (note missing hyphen) seems to be an especially popular variant.

Another popular comedic variant is "You see this object here? When I nod my head, hit it as hard as you can."

Yet another common variant: A cries "X!" referring to seeing an X approaching, but B interprets it as the answer to his preceding rhetorical question.

On a more serious note, however, ambiguous syntax is sometimes used in false advertising so that the advertiser can claim they explained everything, and it was the consumer's fault for misinterpreting the statement. Likewise, in myth and legend, prophecy often includes ambiguous syntax, to make it more difficult to determine the exact details of a predicted event until it actually occurs. It is especially abused by the Literal Genie, to grant a wish in a way not intended by the speaker.

The Other Wiki lists more examples here. This can more easily happen in English, where there is a lot more room for ambiguity due to lack of case marking and grammatical gender (languages with one of those usually require adjectives and nouns to agree on gender and case, so you know a feminine adjective couldn't refer to a masculine noun). It's also awfully common in Latin (ironically a language with case marking AND genders) due to the freer word order.

Subtrope to Double Meaning. Compare Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma, Prophecy Twist, False Reassurance, Exact Words, Confusing Multiple Negatives and I Know You Know I Know. For issues caused by spacing rather than syntax, see The Problem with Pen Island.


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    Card Games 
  • Munchkin
    • The "... Of Doom!" card, resulting in "Bow with Ribbons... of Doom!". The question came up whether it was the bow or the ribbons that were "of doom".
    • Then add in to this the "...of my Grandfather" card from Munchkin Fu and you can have such gems as the "Big Black .45... of Doom... of my Grandfather" which leads one to think that the gun killed the grandfather. Or, in the other order: "Big Black .45... of my Grandfather... of Doom" brings up whether it's the gun or the grandfather that is "of doom".
  • There's a famous story about the playtesting of the first Magic: The Gathering cards after game creator Richard Garfield had this exchange:
    Tester: I think this card "Time Walk" is a Game Breaker.
    Garfield: Why?
    Tester: I win every time I play it. See? It says, "Target player loses next turn."
    Garfield: ...Let's change that to, "Take an Extra Turn after this one."

    Comic Books 
  • Sometimes used as one of Roger the Dodger's scams in The Beano, such as selling tickets to see the "Man Eating Fish"...which turns out to be a man, eating fish (and chips).
  • In one Captain Britain story featuring Captain Airstrip-One, an alternate Captain Britain who represents the Britain of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Captain Airstrip-One is told by his superior to "imagine a boot stomping on a face forever." Captain Airstrip-One, who has no will of his own, happily obliges, but misinterprets the order — he thought he was meant to imagine that image forever, so he does, effectively making this mission his last.
  • In a humorous Tom Strong story, Paul Saveen mentions once having a secret base in a "lost Eskimo mine." As he goes into detail it becomes clear that it wasn't a lost mine belonging to Eskimos, but rather a mine belonging to a lost Eskimo — it was under Death Valley. Poor guy was very lost.
  • This one isn't so comical. In the Supreme Power version of Squadron Supreme, Dr. Emil Burbank relates to Inertia the story of a poor family in Iran: When a man's wife and daughter were raped by extremist soldiers, he killed them.
    Inertia: The soldiers... all of them?
    Burbank: No, of course not. He didn't kill the soldiers — he killed the women, because they had disgraced the family.
  • In Top 10, after a gruesome teleporter accident, wherein his car materializes inside Kapela (a gigantic horse-like warrior taking part in a cosmic chess game), Mr Nebula is understandably upset about the death of his wife and very upset that Kapela is being so insufferably calm about it. They have this exchange:
    Kapela: I am calm. My friend, your mate and yourself count for a great deal. Your value in the Great Game is far in excess of my own.
    Mr Nebula: It's not a game! It's not a £$%&ing game! It was our £$%&ing lives, man!
    Kapela: Yes. Yes, indeed, it was. And £$%&ing is a glorious and noble thing, for thence all higher life commences... ...and you and I, my friend, I fear will not be £$%&ing any more.
  • The short story of Moebius, "Man - is it good?" This is the correct interpretation. (Luckily, the pun works in languages other than the original French.)

  • Evidence, a The Silmarillion/Discworld crossover, contains an example of this. Death says the kittens may get at the Silmarils, but it won't matter because they're unbreakable. Maedhros thinks he means the kittens are unbreakable, when he's referring to the Silmarils.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The source of many a Laurel and Hardy joke. In County Hospital, for example, Ollie tells Stan to cut off a trouser leg. Stan thinks he means Ollie's leg.
  • Singin' in the Rain: When Don is mobbed by his fans, he shouts, "Cosmo, do something! Call me a cab!" Cosmo replies, "Okay, you're a cab!"
  • Captain Spaulding's speech in Animal Crackers has two examples:
    "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I dunno."
    "We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. So we're going back again in a couple of weeks..."
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has a Shout-Out to Animal Crackers when Grandpa says, "I got up this morning and shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he ever got into my pyjamas I shall never know."
  • In Love Me Tonight (1932), a classic exchange between Gilbert and Valentine after Jeanette has a fainting spell.
    Gilbert: Valentine, could you go for a doctor?
    Valentine: Certainly! Bring him right in!
  • In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch skywrites "SURRENDER DOROTHY" above the Emerald City. Given that skywriting makes punctuation difficult, does she mean "Surrender, Dorothy" as in "Give up, Dorothy, it's pointless to resist"; or "Surrender Dorothy" as in, "People of the Emerald City, if you've taken Dorothy in, give her to me"? Or possibly both?
  • In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Eglantine is rummaging through her ingredients and pulls out "Poisoned Dragon's Liver." One of the children asks, "Did they poison the dragon, or just the liver?" Even she's not sure; it came already prepared.
  • In Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels, while searching an insane asylum for a dangerous man named Andrew Laeddis, is told by insane patient George Noyce "This is about you, and Laeddis. That's all it's ever been about". At least, that's what Teddy thinks he said. What he actually said was This is about you. And Laeddis, that's all it's ever been about, secretly spoiling Teddy's true identity.
  • From Mary Poppins: "I met a man with a wooden leg named Smith." "What was the name of his other leg?"
  • Clue:
    Mrs. White: ...he had threatened to kill me in public.
    Miss Scarlet: Why would he want to kill you in public?
    Wadsworth: I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her.
    • Also
    Colonel Mustard: Wadsworth, am I right in thinking there's nobody else in this house?
    Wadsworth: Um... no.
    Colonel Mustard: Then there is someone else in this house?
    Wadsworth: Sorry, I said "no" meaning "yes."
    Colonel Mustard: "No" meaning "yes?" Look, I want a straight answer, is there someone else, or isn't there, yes, or no?
    Wadsworth: No.
    Colonel Mustard: No there is, or no there isn't?
    Wadsworth: Yes.
    Mrs. White: (shatters glass) PLEASE!
  • Lesbian Vampire Killers: a debate occurred on this very wiki about whether this movie would be about lesbians who killed vampires, lesbian vampires who were killers or people who killed lesbian vampires. It turned out to be the third option, although the second also applies.
  • In the same vein, Ninja Assassin managed to accomplish this with only two words, as the trailers did not clarify whether the film was about a ninja who assassinates people, or people who assassinate ninja. (As it turned out, it was about both.)
  • The Gamers: Hands of Fate: Invoked by the Show Within a Show, Ninja Dragon Riders. It is later clarified that both the dragons and the dragon riders are ninjas.
  • In Mean Girls
    Did your teacher ever try to sell you marijuana or ecstasy tablets?
    What are marijuana tablets?
  • Eight Legged Freaks. The fact that the title is not hyphenated seems to mean that it could be read as "Eight freaks with legs", rather than "Freaks with eight legs".
  • There's also this little exchange from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:
    Perry: I want you to picture a bullet inside your head right now. Can you do that for me?
    Orderly: Fuck you. Anyway, that's ambiguous.
    Perry: Ambiguous? No, I don't think so.
    Harry: No, I think what he means is that when you say "Picture it inside your head" okay is that that a bullet will be inside your head? Or picture it IN your head?
    Perry: Harry, will you shut up?
    Harry: Well, he's got a point.
  • The Little Rascals had a three foot man eating chicken in a freak show. It was one of the kids wearing a fake mustache, and eating from a bucket of chicken.
  • Airplane!: Ambiguous syntax? What is it? "It's the use of sentences which could be interpreted in multiple ways due to syntax problems, but that's not important right now."
    • Ted Striker is speaking of a "drinking problem" while narrating a flashback, and a second later we see he in fact meant a problem with his ability to drink, namely that he was spilling the whole glass on his face.
    • Airplane used this trope for a lot of its humor:
    Ted: It's an entirely different type of flying, altogether.
    Dr. Rumack and Randy, in unison: It's an entirely different type of flying.

    Dr. Rumack: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
    Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
    Dr. Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

    Hanging Lady: Nervous?
    Ted: Yes.
    Hanging Lady: First time?
    Ted: No, I've been nervous lots of times.
    • And of course
    Ted: Surely, you must be kidding.
    Dr. Rumack: I never kid. And don't call me Shirley.
    Steve Mc Croskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this? [Hands him the weather briefing]
    Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl...
  • From The King's Speech:
    Bertie: (telling a story to his daughters) This was very inconvenient for him, because he loved t-t-to hold his princesses in his arms. But you can't if you're a penguin, because y-you have wings, like herrings.
    Margaret: Herrings don't have wings.
    Bertie: Penguins have wings which are sh-sh-shaped like herrings.
  • In Universal Soldier, when Dolph Lungren thinks he's about to finish off Jean-Claude Van Damme, he says "say goodnight, asshole". Van Damme then surreptitiously injects himself with Phlebotinum and says "goodnight, asshole" and kicks Lungren's ass. Probably a Shout-Out to the apocryphal George Burns and Gracie Allen "Say goodnight, Gracie" bit.
  • In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in the song "Charles Atlas", Frank N. Furter makes the claim, "In just seven days, I can make you a man." Since he has just unveiled the man he made for himself, it's fairly clear which way he means that.
  • Early on in Home Alone after Kevin gets in trouble for retaliating against Buzz's taunting, his mother forces him to go to bed early:
    Mother: Say good night, Kevin.
    Kevin: Good night, Kevin.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian brings us the trope-naming "We ARE Struggling Together"
    Brian: Brothers, we should be struggling together!
    Rebel: We are!
  • In My Cousin Vinny, Billy Gambini and his friend are taken into custody by the police. But they assume they're being questioned for shoplifting at a convenience store whereas the police assume they're responsible for a robbery and murder at said convenience store. When the policemen finally tell them why they're in custody, Billy asks "I shot the clerk?" in an attempt to clarify, but the police misinterpret it as an admission of guilt ("I shot the clerk!"), and they're arrested, kick-starting the film's plot.
  • In The Fugitive, Helen Kimble's last words, "Richard... He's trying to kill me...", gets interpreted by the prosecutors as Helen identifying her husband Richard as the assailant, when in fact she was calling to him, begging for help.
  • In Ant-Man, Scott asks Hank how he makes the ants carry sugar cubes to him. Instead of explaining how he controls the ants, he goes over the well-known fact that ants can carry heavy objects relative to their weight.

  • In a GrailQuest game book, you enter a room containing "a man eating plant". The next line informs you that the plant he's eating is a carrot.

  • An engineer's wife sends him to the store, telling him, "Pick up a loaf of bread, and if they have eggs get a dozen." He comes home with twelve loaves of bread.
  • A classic Jewish joke goes this: Kohn walks over a cemetery and with horror sees the gravestone of his old buddy X (insert name here): "Here lies X, a loving father and an honest salesman." He cries out: "Oyvey, they put you in a mass grave!"
    • There's also an Evil Lawyer Joke along these lines. A mother and child are walking in the cemetery and the child asks, "Mom, do they usually put two people in a grave?" Mom says, "No, why?" Kid says "Because that one over there says 'Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.'"
  • There is a classic tongue-twister "Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers." Now, are they baby buggy bumpers made of rubber, bumpers for a baby buggy made of rubber, or bumpers for a buggy containing a baby made of rubber?
  • An immigrant couple take the highway to their friend's house and don't show up for three days. Their host inquires why it took so long and they said there are three rest stops between the two cities. When asked why does that matter, they say they saw a sign that said "Clean Restrooms Ahead."
  • One that hangs a lampshade on the trope goes like this:
    Linguists enjoy ambiguity more than most people.

  • There's the famous one from The Lord of the Rings. The inscription on the door to Moria reads, "Speak 'friend,' and enter" in Elvish. What is required is to say the Elvish word for friend (the gates were to a Dwarf-kingdom, but were designed by an Elf from the neighboring Elf-kingdom). Gandalf misinterprets this by assuming he is the friend, and the door is commanding him to simply speak.
  • From The Elements of Style:
    New York's first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.
    (...) In the left-hand version of the third example, the reader's heart goes out to those eighteen poor fellows frozen in a steel tank.
  • Panda: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
  • The Discworld book The Truth has a few jokes about not only ambiguous headlines, but trying to compensate for them, such as "Patrician Attacks Clerk With Knife (he had the knife, not the clerk)".
    • In the same book, Mr. Tulip uses a phrase (via his Verbal Tic swearing) that is misinterpreted due to this:
      Mr. Tulip: It's not a 覧ing harpsichord, it's a 覧ing virginal! One 覧ing string to a note instead of two! So called because it was an instrument for 覧ing young ladies!
      Chair: My word, was it? I thought it was just a sort of early piano!
      Mr. Pin: Meant to be played by young ladies.
    • An earlier appearance of this particular Verbal Tic appears in Mort, as does another case of unclear syntax (this time via Literalist Snarking):
      First Villain: Well, 覧 me. A 覧ing wizard. I hate 覧ing wizards.
      Second Villain: You shouldn't 覧 them, then.
    • In another book, Carrot describes a crowd of refugees as "mostly human." Vimes has to stop him and ask if that means that the crowd was mostly made up of humans, or that each person in the crowd was partly human. Given the demographic makeup of Ankh-Morpork, that's an entirely reasonable question.
    • In Snuff a character says "I'm just a complicated chicken farmer!" By which he means he keeps complicated chickens.
    • In Interesting Times, an oracle is asked to predict the outcome of the climactic battle, but doesn't know what answer to give Lord Hong. So he says with confidence that 'The enemy will be defeated' and then leaves before he is asked whose enemy.
    • In the Tourist's Guide To Lancre, there's mention of a Headless Horseman who haunts Magrat's home village. How the reins stay on is something of a mystery.
    • A character attempts to become immortal by casting the "summon Death" spell backwards believing it would repel death. Instead, it summons him from his home to Death's home. Technically it still works, since Death is willing to negotiate when he gets there.
    • In Soul Music, Ridcully, searching for the rest of the senior wizards, tells Ponder Stibbons "I've lost my faculty." Ponder replies "For what, Archchancellor?"
  • In Blindsight by Peter Watts, a linguist intentionally uses extremely ambiguous sentences to determine whether she's talking to an actual person or a mere syntax engine.
    Sascha: Our cousins lie about the family tree, with nieces and nephews and Neandertals. We do not like annoying cousins.
    Rorschach (the alien ship): We'd like to know about this tree.
    Sascha (to her crewmates): It couldn't have parsed that. There were three linguistic ambiguities in there. It just ignored them.
  • From The Fourth Bear:
    "The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in the hospital."
    "Yes. Don't like the food, bed's uncomfortable, waiting list's too long. Usual crap."
    • An entire scene in The Well of Lost Plots is built on this, when Thursday meets a man with a hat named Wilbur (or something like that.) The man is apparently cursed with bad syntax, and is constantly apologizing for it.
  • The title character of Amelia Bedelia will interpret all syntax incorrectly if it's even slightly ambiguous, no matter how nonsensical the interpretation is.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
    Ford: You'd better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like being drunk.
    Arthur: What's so unpleasant about being drunk?
    Ford: You ask a glass of water.
  • 1066 and All That: 'Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off'. Obviously a dead Charles the First cannot have done this, so add punctuation and voila 'Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.'.note 
  • King Pyrrhus is said to have consulted an oracle of the god Apollo about whether he should fight the Romans. Apollo advised him Aio te, Aeacida, Romanos vincere posse, (Ennius, Annales fr. 167). The sentence may be translated 的 say, O son of Ajax, that you the Romans can conquer 卜eaning either 添ou can conquer the Romans or The Romans can conquer you. (Cicero, De Divinatione ii. 56, § 116, remarked that it was odd that Apollo should speak in Latin.) This makes it Older Than Feudalism. The line became a proverbial example of amphiboly (ambiguous grammatical structure), and is quoted as such by Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part 2, I. iv. 62).
    • It also seems somewhat accurate, given the nature of his Pyrrhic Victory.
  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka at one point introduces a new creation of his: "Square candies that look round." Once he and the others enter the room, a stack of square-shaped candies with little faces on them turn to face them. In other words, they looked 'round.
  • In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hagrid purchases a "flesh-eating slug repellent". (It's confirmed elsewhere in the series, however, that it's the slug which is flesh-eating, not the repellent.)
  • In Rogue Squadron, Corran Horn is flying with a randomized flight program while broadcasting a beacon that allows a set of proton torpedoes to follow him toward a target (It Makes Sense in Context). Most of the torpedoes hit the target, but one set that was fired late didn't, and continued to follow him. Horn, struggling to evade the torpedoes with the randomized flight program, tells his astromech Whistler to "cut it out". Corran meant the flight program; Whistler instead opted to "cut out" the beacon. It worked out, though Corran got a bit of a scare.
  • In Gardens of the Moon, the first book in Malazan Book of the Fallen, a character named Sorry is asked for her name. When she replies truthfully, the other party shrugs it off as a case of amnesia. Sorry doesn't bother to correct him.
  • This is used twice in one of the Greyfriars stories. Bunter is on holiday and in Singapore with some other boys from his school. Too lazy to walk, and with no rickshaws (or means of summoning one) in sight, the following conversation takes place:
    Bunter: "Don't hang about. Just call me a rickshaw."
    Bob Cherry: "O.K. You're a rickshaw!"
    • Shortly after, a rickshaw comes along but Bunter is a bit too fat for the flimsy rickshaw. He only gets a slight bump from the rickshaw collapsing but immediately wants an ambulance anyway.
    Bob Cherry: "Like me to call you an ambulance?" (grinning)
    Bunter: "Yes, I jolly well would."
    Bob Cherry: "All right! You're an ambulance, Bunter."
  • "Die dampfenden Hälse der Pferde im Turm zu Babel" by Franz Fühmann is a children book classic about language: use, abuse and play. Many examples, including an impromptu SF story "The Black Hole Aggressor" whose main weapon is comma moving.
  • In the Dresden Files book Skin Games Michael is a little vague with his pronoun usage.
    Nicodemus: Lower the Sword, or I will order Grey to kill Valmont.
    Michael: If you do that, Dresden and I will fight to the death.
    Harry: Right. We'll fight you. Not each other. In case that wasn't clear.
    • Dresden's specificity probably comes from dealing with the Fae as much as he has.
    Leanansidhe: "Give me your hand, child."
    Harry: "I need my hand, godmother."
  • Ax of Animorphs uses this as an excuse when he morphs human (which causes him to turn into a Sense Freak where food is concerned) to get some cinnamon buns, and after accidentally causing a disturbance, the Cinnabon manager takes pity on him, shows him some trays of buns, and allows Ax to "have one". His narration shows his thought process:
    Ax: One mouthful? One bun? One tray? It was certainly not my fault if there was any confusion.
  • The story (and story collection title) "Reality Conditions" by Alex Kasman of "Math Fiction" fame. The obvious interpretation is also legit, but what meant is a mathematical terminus technicus: preconditions on a function so that it takes real values (in contrast to complex ones).
  • Pat Mc Manus in one of his books, after swerving to avoid hitting a skunk one night:
    Bun: My goodness! What would you have done if you'd hit that skunk with the car?
    Pat: The only thing to do. I'd have stopped and buried it in the ditch. I might have even buried the skunk while I was at it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Boy Meets World:
    Topanga: And we're living in an apartment where a guy was shot over a salad, part of which was still stuck on the wall!
    Angela: ...the guy or the salad?
    Topanga: I don't know. I ate it anyway.
  • In an episode of Selfie, Henry has the wrong idea about the song "Working For the Weekend" by Loverboy, he thinks its about working during the weekend, and he tells this (even singing it with a coworker in an elevator) to Eliza to encourage her to do something nice on the weekend. Another co-worker explains the song is actually about working during the week so that you can have fun on the weekend, and Henry declares he's going to delete that song from his playlist.
  • One episode of Friends has Joey being interviewed:
    Interviewer: How does it feel to have a huge gay fan base?
  • In an episode of The Latest Buzz, a psychic tells Michael that he will encounter "a 6-foot man eating chicken". He then sees his teacher, who is 6 feet tall, eating chicken and becomes convinced that the psychic is genuine.
  • Monk.
    • From "Mr. Monk on Wheels". Monk has been shot in the leg, and Captain Stottlemeyer and Lieutenant Disher are interrogating the suspected shooter's cousin:
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: Hmm, tough guy, ehh? [shows the bullet in an evidence bag] Look at this. See that? That's a bullet. That's a bullet that got dug out of our very dear friend's leg tonight!
    Lt. Randall Disher: That makes your cousin a former cop shooter.
    Vince Kuramoto: Former what?
    Lt. Randall Disher: Former cop shooter.
    Vince Kuramoto: You mean he used to shoot cops?
    Lt. Randall Disher: No. He shot someone who used to be a cop.
    Vince Kuramoto: Why didn't you say that?
    Lt. Randall Disher: I did, it's the same thing.
    Vince Kuramoto: It's not the same thing at all, it's not even close-
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: Oh for God's sakes! What are you two, married or what?! Look, it's not complicated, Vince! If you know where your cousin is and you're not telling us, [points an accusing finger at Vince] that makes you an accessory after the fact.
    Lt. Randall Disher: For aiding and abetting!
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: For attempted murder, which is a very very VERY long "goodbye"! Let me put it this way: your parole officer? He hasn't been born yet.
    • In "Mr. Monk Makes the Playoffs", Bob Costas asks Stottlemeyer if Monk's told him about the way they met. Stottlemeyer says all he knows is that involved something about a demented cat salesman. Costas then clarifies: the cat salesman was not demented, he sold demented cats, like a calico kitten that was psychotic, and other cats that had multiple personalities.
  • This is the entire point of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch "Robot Repair."
    • A Saturday Night Live skit, wherein Ed Asner tells Julia Louis-Dreyfus first "You can never put too much water in a nuclear reactor," and ends with "You can never stare too long at a mushroom cloud."
  • On an episode of Carniv瀝e, Stumpy did a spiel promising to show "the fearsome Man Eating Chicken." When the curtain was pulled aside, another carny was sitting at a table, eating... well, you can guess.
    • Was the carny in question fearsome?
  • An episode of Perfect Strangers has Larry and Balki trying to fix the plumbing in their apartment.
    Larry (holding pipe): Now, when I nod my head, you hit it with the hammer.
  • On one episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there was some discussion as to the meaning of the title of the movie: Teen-Age Strangler. There was a strangler, but it wasn't a teenager. And not all of the victims of the strangler were Teen-Age girls. So why is it titled Teen-Age Strangler?
  • Jokes based on this are part of Aaron Sorkin's Signature Style.
    Abbey: Women talk about their husbands overshadowing their careers — mine got eaten.
    C.J.: Your husband got eaten?
    Abbey: My career.
    C.J.: Yeah, well, I'm on dangling-modifier patrol.
    • In the pilot of The West Wing, Leo askes Sam to give his daughter's fourth grade class a tour in the West Wing. He is utterly unprepeared and spends his time between making a fool out of himself and trying to figure out which of the girls is Leo's daughter, so he can properly suck up to her. The teacher loses her patience and drags him out of the room to chew him out, after which this happens:
    Sam: Now. Would you please, in the name of compassion, tell me which one of those kids is my boss's daughter.
    Mallory: ...That would be me.
    Sam You?
    Mallory: Yes.
    Sam Leo's daughter's fourth grade class.
    Mallory: Yes.
    Sam: ...Well, this is bad on so many levels.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Band Candy", someone had painted "KISS rocks!" on the students' lockers. Willow is briefly confused over why anyone would kiss rocks.
  • When Wesley first showed up on Angel, he announced that he had become a rogue demon hunter. Cordelia's response: "What's a rogue demon?"
    • The Angel roleplaying game introduces a rogue demon hunter character type, who is in fact a rogue demon, who hunts other demons, thus technically making her a "rogue demon demon hunter".
  • In an episode of I Love Lucy, there was a comedic stage show featuring a "Man Eating Tiger"; Ricky holding a tiny, edible model tiger and taking a bite out of it.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: "Next week, part 2: Biggles Flies Undone."note 
    • "In 1970 the British Empire lay in ruins, foreign nationals frequented the streets - many of them Hungarians (not the streets-the foreign nationals)."
    • "Don't anybody leave the room, my name is Constable Look-out!"
      "Look out?"
      "Where? Oh, right. Look-out of the Yard."
      "What will we see when we look out of the yard?"
  • In one of the Event sketches on That Mitchell and Webb Look, the announcer introduces the contestants as "Peter, who you may remember; and Sheila, who you're also permitted to remember."
  • Open All Hours:
    Arkwright (reading newspaper): "The police are looking for a small man with one eye". If he's that small, you'd think they'd use both eyes!
  • Paul Merton likes to use this trope on Have I Got News for You. For example, when he was asked to complete the headline "(BLANK) flies off without warning", he suggested "Spider scares..." and "Clinton's...".
    • Also: "Saddam Hussein was found in his underpants. Makes you wonder why they didn't look there in the first place."
  • Blackadder:
    • In the first episode, Richard IV asks Prince Edmund, "Fight you with us on the morrow?" Blackadder hastily replies that he'll be fighting with the enemy. Cue awkward pause.
    • In Blackadder Goes Forth, Bob Parkhurst disguises herself as a man because she "want[s] to see how a war is fought so badly." Edmund informs her that she has come to the right place, as the war is being fought very badly indeed.
    • Blackadder also gives us "Say thank you, Baldrick." "Thank you Baldrick."
    • From Blackadder II:
      Blackadder: Get the door, Baldrick.
      *Baldrick returns to the room with a door in his hands*
    • In Blackadder the Third, Edmund tells Mr Hardwood that "The Prince wants your daughter for his wife." An outraged Mr Hardwood replies "Well, his wife can't have her!"
    • Blackadder the Third also has an incredibly reactionary MP who declares that he "dined hugely off a servant":
    Prince George: Um, you eat your servants?
    Sir Talbot: No, sir; I eat off them. Why should I spend money on tables when I have men standing idle?
  • The Prisoner uses Number 2's odd, stilted syntax to hide something that, were it written down properly punctuated, would give away the premise of the series.
    Number 6: Who is Number 1?
    Number 2: You are, Number 6.
  • In an episode of Kate and Allie, Allie finds an envelop on the sidewalk. When she opens it, she announces, "It contains five hundred dollar bills!" Kate asks, "Is that five hundred dollar bills, or five hundred-dollar bills, or an unspecified number of five-hundred dollar bills?" (It's the third option, specifically $5000 in $500-dollar bills.)
  • An episode of Hey Dude! featured Buddy trying to prove that hypnosis works by hypnotizing Jake, who is eating a bowl of cereal, into pouring the cereal over his head. Meaning Buddy wants the cereal on Jake's head, not his own. Jake plays along just so he can abuse this trope, along with Pronoun Trouble:
    Buddy: I want you to pour the cereal over your head.
    Jake: Must pour cereal...over your head. (Dumps cereal on Buddy)
    (Later Buddy tries to correct this)
    Jake: Must pour cereal...over...over...
    Buddy: My head, over my head.
    Jake: (Dumps cereal on Buddy)
  • Dr. Fishman in Arrested Development has a habit of making ambiguous statements about patients' conditions. He tells the Bluths who think George Sr. is critically ill following a heart attack that they "lost him" and he "got away from us" (actually meaning that he escaped after faking the symptoms in order to break out of jail), and that Buster is going to be "all right" (because his left hand was bitten off). There's also the meta-example of the twist that was alluded to from the beginning of the show George-Michael's cousin, maybe, Maeby.
    • An episode has Buster and his mother arguing about him dating her social rival, Lucille. This exchange follows.
    Buster: And I'm going to continue dating, mom.
    Michael: Sounds a little bit like "dating mom".
  • In one episode of The X-Files, a supposed psychic claimed he'd die in bed with Scully. He ended up dying in a hospital bed, with Scully in the same room.
  • One episode of Scrubs has Gooch threaten to smash Turk's face in with her ukelele until it's in a million pieces. She doesn't say whether his face or the ukelele would be the one in pieces.
  • In an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun, Harry has gotten Easy Amnesia and forgotten he's an alien, but finds out the others are aliens and becomes paranoid about them:
    Sally: Come on, let's eat, Harry.
    Harry: Did you just say, "let's eat Harry"?
    Sally: Yeah, we're hungry, so it's time to eat, Harry.
    Harry: "Eat Harry". I see. [beat] Could I just have a moment?
    Sally: Whatever. [leaves]
    Tommy: [enters] Will you hurry it up, I'm starving!
  • In the Parks and Recreation episode in which Ben and Leslie get married, Andy sees Leslie in her wedding dress:
    Andy: Oh my God, I'm not supposed to see you before the wedding!
    April: Andy, that's the groom.
    Andy: Oh no, I saw him too!
  • The Muppet Christmas Special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas has Emmet's late father as a Snake Oil Salesman. His business failed because "There just aren't enough people who want to oil a snake".
  • Doctor Who
    • There is an asteroid base that is initially assumed to be named "Demon's Run". As it turns out, it's actually "Demons Run". As in "Demons run when a good man goes to war."
    • In the episode "The Name of the Doctor", the Doctor has a secret that he will take to his grave. It is discovered. Not the secret, the grave.
    • Somewhat the case in the 50th Anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor". The three doctors attempt to save their home planet of Gallifrey from destruction during the Time War, but are left clueless about whether they succeeded or not. All they have is a painting of the planet, which apparently has two titles: "No More" and "Gallifrey Falls". It's only after talking to the museum's curator (implied to be a future version of the Doctor, given his resemblance to the fourth incarnation) that Eleven finds out the painting has one full title: "Gallifrey falls no more".
    • The episode "Heaven Sent" ends with the Doctor finally revealing the identity of the Hybrid, a being who has been discussed all season: "The me!" It's left unclear (and never properly revealed) whether he was referring to himself ("The Hybrid is me") or to Ashildr, who had been calling herself simply "Me" for centuries ("The Hybrid is Me"); each of the two proposes the other is the Hybrid in the following episode, and ultimately the question is handwaved away (it turns out the Doctor never knew to begin with, and was lying to get the Time Lords to resurrect Clara).
  • The Soup discussed this regarding a reality show called What!? I'm a Stripper. Joel can't figure out what inflection to use when saying the show's title. It could be read with confusion ("What?? I'm a stripper??") or belligerence (WHAT!? I'M A STRIPPER!).
  • In the Defiance episode "This Woman's Work", Stahma Tarr is being harassed by the holy man Kurr who vows to "see [her] on a shaming rack." She arranges for him to be put on a shaming rack and makes sure he sees her when she casts her stone.
  • On 30 Rock, a new actor is hired and Jenna enlists Tracy to help get rid of him. She tells him "He's evil, Tracy!" making Tracy say "He's Evil Tracy?!" before he realizes that she meant "He's evil, comma, Tracy."
    • When Grizz and Dot Com show Tracy his birthday invitations, Tracy notices that they put "Give to charity please! No presents." on the invites. Dot Com says that that's what he told them to put on them. Tracy says that what he meant was "Give to charity? Please, no. Presents!"
    • At one point Jack mentions that the first edition of a book he wrote had a typo. He said "By the end of this quarter, we're all gonna be in the black—comma—guys", not "We're all gonna be in the black guys."
  • In Good Luck Charlie, PJ is offering cats, with a sign saying "Cats, $20."
    Here's your cat. And here's your $20.
  • In the The Big Bang Theory episode "The Zazzy Substitution", after the intervention for Sheldon's cat hoarding, Sheldon and Amy are finding home for the cats with the sign "Cats $20".
    Sheldon: Thank you, Amy. Here's your cat. And here's your $20.
    • A scene in "The Indecision Amalgamation" has Penny and Leonard looking over a terrible movie script she's been offered.
    Penny: Okay, look, here, page 58. I oil-wrestle an orang-utan in a bikini.
    Leonard: Just to clarify, which one of you is wearing the bikini?
    Penny: Both of us.
  • Discussed in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when covering Chief Justice Roberts' comments on Obamacare, then bringing up a banner used to support the London women's soccer team "Come On Our Girls!" pointing out that it really could have used a comma.
  • In an episode of Modern Family, Mitch explained to Gloria that his daughter's "My Lil' Companion" doll had a backstory involving working with "blind dolphins and models".
    Gloria: There are blind models? That's so sad! They can not see how pretty they are.
  • In a German sketch show, there was an emergency telephone. When a poor victim wanted to use it, it cried "Emergency! Emergency!".
  • Kaamelott: One episode has Séli explain the problems with hosting meetings with clan chieftains, citing their appetites, the drunkeness, the nonexisstent manners...
    Séli: And then they fight with the servants.
    (blank stare from Arthur)
    Séli: They fight with the servants.
    (blank stare)
    Séli: They grab the servants, and they use them to--
  • One episode of Big Time Rush saw the nasty hotel manager try to ban children and teens from swimming in the pool by putting up a sign: "Private No Kids Allowed." A quick application of a marker was all it took to make the sign say "Private? No! Kids Allowed," followed by everyone jumping in.
  • The hosts of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In's perennial signoff lines:
    Dan Rowan: Say goodnight, Dick.
    Dick Martin: Goodnight, Dick.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017):
    "Stephano": Don't you miss the vivid imagination of childhood?
    Mr. Poe: I never had one.
    "Stephano": An imagination or a childhood?

  • Jim Stafford's My Girl Bill: At first listen you think the two men are talking about coming to terms abount their love affair to each other... but it's really about two men who loved the same woman. "She's MY girl,(beat) Bill."
  • 'A one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater'. This early (1950s!) music video makes it clear that the 'correct' interpretation was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying eater of purple people, but it's impossible to tell from the title of the song alone.
    • This is also clarified in the song itself with the exchange
    ''I said, "Mr. Purple People Eater, what's your line?"
    ''He said "Eating purple people, and it sure is fine."
    • Of course a lot of the promotional materials for the song had it colored purple as well which would make it a Purple Purple People Eater.
  • Ray Stevens' "Little League":
    I remember batting practice — I put a baseball on a string
    And I told this kid, "When I nod my head, haul off and hit that thing!"
    Heh, gotta give him credit; he did exactly what I said
    Cuz the second that I nodded... HE HIT ME IN THE HEAD!
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Jurassic Park" has the line "A huge Tyrannosaurus ate our lawyer/Well I suppose that proves/They're really not all bad." The ambiguity is whether the T-Rex isn't all bad, for disposing of a lawyer, or the lawyer isn't all bad, either for providing sustenance/another target, or in the "not un-tasty" sense. Al says he left it ambiguous on purpose.
    • Applies to the opening line of "Everything You Know Is Wrong": "I was driving on the freeway in the fast lane with a rabid wolverine in my underwear", the ambiguity of which was later the subject of a quiz question on Weird Al's website. Is there a rabid wolverine stuffed down Al's pants, is Al sharing a car with a wolverine who's wearing his underwear, or is Al simply in his own underwear, with the wolverine just along for the ride?
  • Mike Doughty's "Rising Sign" includes the deliberately ambiguous line "I resent the way you make me like myself". "Like" can be read as a verb or a preposition in the context, so it could mean either "I resent that you make me feel good about myself" or "I resent that you make me act in a way characteristic of myself".
  • The last verse of The Kinks' "Lola" ends in "...I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola". This could either mean that the naive narrator never found out that Lola was a transvestite at all ("Lola and I are both glad that I am a man"), or that he did eventually figure it out and just doesn't mind ("I'm glad that Lola and I are both men" or I'm glad I'm a man, and Lola is also glad she's a man.").
  • One that's troubled generations of children: "There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o." More dogs than farmers are named Bingo, but you never know.
  • Danish band Mew named one of their albums "And The Glass Handed Kites", is it a group of kites with glass hands or a glass that gave kites?
  • Comedian Rodney Carrington's song "Fred" has a plot where a man, his horse, and his love interest ("a woman in a nightgown") are all called Fred. This trope makes the chorus either completely innocent or unspeakably filthy.
    Oh, oh, now Fred's a-ridin' Fred
    Fred's ridin' Fred, Fred's ridin' Fred
    Fred's ridin' Fred, Fred's ridin' Fred.
  • Jonathan Coulton has a song called "Nobody Loves You Like Me." Does it mean "nobody loves you like I love you" or "nobody loves you and nobody loves me either"? The answer seems to be both.

  • Another ambiguous headline featuring this trope: "Man Eating Piranha Accidentally Sold as Pet Fish". Actually, probably most ambiguous headlines would qualify, depending on how loosely we define the trope. They're even more vulnerable to it than normal sentences due to omitting lots of grammatical features. The professionals call these crash blossoms.
    • The actual origin is from a headline Violinist linked to JAL crash blossomsnote 
    • Also an example of why attention to punctuation is important. The headline would not be ambiguous if "man-eating" were hyphenated.
    • Some other notable crash blossoms are "Iraqi Head Seeks Arms" and "Police Help Dog Bite Victim."
    • There's also "Giant Tea Bags Protest". Is it a giant protest about tea bags, a protest about giant tea bags, are the giant tea bags protesting or are there bags protesting about giant tea?
    • When Ike Turner died, the New York Post failed to resist the temptation to run the headline "Ike Beats Tina to Death."
  • Robert Ripley, an American columnist, once wrote the supposed origin of the phrase "Pardon impossible. To be sent to Siberia", the meaning of which flips if the period is moved to become "Pardon. Impossible to be sent to Siberia".
  • Newspaper headlines are particularly vulnerable to this due to pressures of space requiring all words that seem superfluous to be removed. Another issue is the (especially British) newspaper tendency to build up absurd compound nouns referring back to previous stories: Buried Alive Fiance Gets 20 Years in Prisonnote , Sex Quiz Cricket Ace in Hotel Suicide Leapnote , Whip rules furore claims first victimnote 
    • There is also the reputed headline: "General MacArthur Flies Back To Front", although this may just be an Urban Legend.
  • This can happen in other languages as well. A German newspaper once read "Sri Lankas Soldaten sollen Kinder entführen" - which you can roughly translate into English as "Sri Lanka's soldiers are supposed to abduct children".
    • There's actually a Facebook group dedicated to newspaper titles and articles that suffer from either this or hilarious typos. Their banner for example has the gem "Lepra-Gruppe hat sich aufgelöst" which can translate to either "Lepra group has disbanded" or "Lepra group disintegrated".
  • During Lyndon Johnson 's term, at least one newspaper published photos of LBJ showing beagle puppies sired by his dog, whose name was Him, to a small child in the Oval Office. As a result of this trope, the caption of the photo took on a rather... different tone.
  • Because headlines tend to be completely capitalized, the Associated Presses December 2015 headline "John Lennon Fans Mark Singer's Death 35 Years Ago Today" leaves one wondering how John Lennon could "fan" someone named "Mark Singer"'s death.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Used in Dilbert, where an investment adviser describes a strategy in which his lawyers put the money in little bags and trained dogs bury them around town. He is asked whether they bury the bags or the lawyers, and replies that they've tried it both ways.
    • Another Dilbert example involved Ratbert having a cat trying to eat his head. Dogbert proposed a solution to Bob the Dinosaur: "I'll yank the cat off Ratbert's head, and you stomp on it." The next panel had Ratbert under Bob's foot and Dogbert saying, "In retrospect, I could have phrased that better."
  • There's a comic strip somewhere with a guy charging money to see a "Man Eating Chicken". Surprise, surprise, after the people had paid, they just ended up seeing an ordinary guy on a stage eating fried chicken from a bucket.
  • Dilbert and his colleagues gets good mileage out of these as a way of giving Stealth Insults to their clueless boss. For example, after the boss spouts off his usual management gibberish, he says "I don't think I can be any clearer". Dilbert agrees with him.


  • The Burns and Allen Show: The famous signoff is a joke on Ambiguous Syntax:
    George: Say 'goodnight', Gracie!
    Gracie: 'Goodnight, Gracie'!
  • The Goon Show did a subversion of the old "when I nod my head, hit it" gag in the 1950s.
    Neddie: There, that did it! (To audience) Hands up all those who though I was gonna hit him on the nut.
    • There is also a rather amusing example that happened partly off stage in "Operation Christmas Duff", a Christmas Special that was broadcast on the World Service and was aimed at British forces overseas. It began:
    Greenslade: Greetings from The Goons!
    Eccles: Hello Eccles!
  • This, from an episode of Hello Cheeky.
    Tim: Barry, turn the radio on.
    Barry: Certainly. (lecherously) Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? Oh, I want to stick my tongue in your aerial socket—
    Tim: ...I meant switch it on.
    Barry: Well, that's no fun.
    • Also:
    Barry: I think I met your aunt, once.
    Tim: ...I don't have an aunt Once. Once is a very silly name for an aunt. I did have an uncle, however...
    Barry: However's a very silly name for an uncle!
  • From The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, Fit the Sixth:
    Zaphod: "It's a carbon copy of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal - or I'm a Vogon's grandmother!"
    Arthur: "The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal?! Is it safe?"
    [Sound of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal salivating.]
    Ford: "Oh yes! It's perfectly safe - it's just us who are in trouble."
  • The panelists of the BBC science show The Infinite Monkey Cage occasionally get derailed into discussions about the title of the show. If a cage is infinite, how is it a cage? Or is it a finite cage somehow containing an infinite number of monkeys? Or is it just one single, infinitely huge monkey, and if so, how could there even be a cage...?
  • In John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme Series 5 episode 2, the Storyteller promises "a tale of espionage, treason and people in suits looking out of windows with rain running down them. (The windows I mean, not the suits)". Later in the story he describes his boss "looking out of the window, with rain running down his suit. I was wrong before."
  • Sometimes used in the Complete Quotes round on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, for example:
    Jack: Rod Stewart: "If there's one thing I've learned about women, that I've tried to pass on to my boys, it's..."
    Barry: "...they don't like being passed on to my boys."
  • In the Adventures in Odyssey episode "A License to Drive", Connie is attempting to teach Eugene Meltzner to drive, when they encounter a stopped vehicle with a pregnant woman in it. When attempting to get the woman to the hospital, Connie has Eugene drive, while she tries to comfort the pregnant woman.
    Connie: Take some deep breaths! Beat NOT YOU, EUGENE!

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the RPG magazine Shadis, there was a puzzle-filled scenario that at one point featured a sign saying "DANGER! Man eating flowers!" Following the path would lead the characters to, what else, a man who was eating flowers. What many players would fail to realize at this point was that there was also danger.
  • Forgotten Realms has an in-universe example with punctuation: one of the many, many prophecies floating around there either (in the standard translation) says dragons will rule the world or (in Sammaster's translation) says dead dragons will rule the world, depending on when a sentence starts. Note that while Sammaster's translation is rejected by the modern scholarship (in no small part likely because Sammaster ended up going completely crazy and tried to fulfill the prophecy), it is consistently indicated to be a mistake you could easily make.
  • Near the end of the Ravenloft adventure "When Black Roses Bloom", a flock of ravens begins croaking three words in sequence as the PCs confront the darklord Soth. As events progress, the words initially heard as "Lord Through Dark" (guiding the heroes to his location) are rendered as "Dark Lord Through" to mark the failure of his evil schemes. Finally, the birds' words resound one last time as "Through Dark Lord", indicating that an escape-portal out of the domain exists in the emblem on Soth's armored breastplate.
  • The RPG based on Angel had a character template who was a rogue demon hunter (that is, a demon who hunted other demons) as a direct reference to the line in the page quote.
  • One April edition of Dragon had various useless magical items including the Invisible Ring. When you put it on, it turned invisible.

  • Groucho Marx's famous line "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."
    • And his "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
    • "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is full of this. Possibly the best example:
    Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
    Guildenstern: No, no, no... death is not. Death isn't. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not be on a boat.
    Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
    Guildenstern: No, no... what you've been is not on boats.
  • In the play A Village Fable, it's unclear whether the notorious Six-Fingered Man has three fingers on each hand or a total of 12.
  • During a standup routine, Zach Galifianakis cited the importance on how you say things.
    Zach: *Solemnly* She had a crack-baby. *Beat, then enthusiastically* She had a crack, baby!
  • The Pirates of Penzance mixes this with Accent Depundent to make the following line: "You said often frequently only once!" The joke is so bad, even the speaker appears ashamed in The Movie.
  • This triggers Ben's breakdown in Follies, as his refrain of "Me, I like live/Me, I like to laugh/Me, I like to love" becomes "Me, I like to love/Me..."

    Video Games 
  • An Interactive Fiction game called The Six-Foot-Tall Man Eating Chicken.
  • An aspiring journalist talking about Troll Hunters in the Warcraft III preview days noted that "We don't know if they are orcs who hunt trolls or trolls that just hunt."
  • The flavor text on at least one item in World of Warcraft exhibits this. On the Vendor Trash item "Robot Brew":
    "Not fit for human consumption. Robot consumption is also questionable. You should not consume robots."
  • Touhou 8: Imperishable Night had a bit of fun with this, when Marisa points out the different meanings "troublesome youkai hunting" can have.
  • Portal:
    • No-one's entirely sure whether GLaDOS is a Genetic Lifeform who is also a Disk Operating System, or whether she is a System for Operating Genetic Lifeforms and Disks. (Judging by the sequel, it's the former).
    • In the second game, one of Cave Johnson's pre-recorded lines is "Say 'goodbye', Caroline."
      Caroline: Goodbye, Caroline!
      Cave Johnson: ...she is a gem.
  • Done for narrative purposes in the Fallout: New Vegas expansion Dead Money. The epilogue for the companion characters, should they live, mentions the Courier and another, who "fought under an Old World banner at the edge of the world". This foreshadows Lonesome Road, and it can mean either of two alternatives: that they fought each other, or that they both fought, together.
  • Day of the Tentacle
    Bernard: That hamster really should get some exercise.
    Ed: Well, Dad puts him to work down in the basement sometimes. But then he starts sweating, and then he gets wet... ...and then he gets cold, and then he refuses to work.
    Bernard: Your dad or the hamster?
  • Human Killing Machine, a Street Fighter knockoff for early gaming computers such as the Amiga and Commodore 64. As Stuart Ashen put it: "Is it about a human who is a killing machine? Or a machine that kills humans?"
  • The Fairly Oddparents: Shadow Showdown has this bit of dialogue between Cosmo and Wanda in "Fairly Disastrous":
    Wanda: I wish I had my magic back.
    Cosmo: The back you're using is fine.
  • The catchphrase of M'aiq the Liar from The Elder Scrolls is "M'aiq knows much, tells some." It's been noted that this could mean that either he only tells some of what he knows, or that he only tells what he knows to some people, and he appears to be doing it on purpose to be mysterious.
  • Dawn of War Retribution has the Big Bad Moon Shoota. The description says it best:
    Big Bad Moon Shoota: Fer shooting da big bad moon. Wot? No? So it shoots moonz outta it, badly? Its shoots Bad Moonz dat're big? Zog it, nevahmind.
    It's a big shoota that belonged to an ork from the Bad Moonz clan.

    Visual Novels 
  • In one event in Roommates, Sally leads a protest against a group of kids when she learns that they're "testing on animals." If you decide to go along with her plan to free the animals, she busts into the classroom and is shocked when she hears a horse whinny and discovers...a bunch of students riding animals and taking their exams at the same time (in other words, they're "testing on animals). Sally comments on the absurdity of the situation before going back outside and breaking up the protest.
  • In the DLC case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice, Phoenix tells Maya that Larry got dumped by his imaginary bride, meaning only Larry thought she was his bride. Maya takes it to mean that Larry somehow got rejected by a figment of his imagination.

    Web Comics 
  • Dinosaur Comics: T-Rex riffs on a classic example (known as a garden-path sentence): "The horse raced past the barn fell".
  • The Order of the Stick uses a similar garden-path sentence early on in its first arc: "When the goat turns red strikes true."
    Thog: not nale, not-nale. and thog knot not-nale while nale nail not-nale. nale, not not-nale, now nail not-nale by leaving not-nale, not nale, in jail.
    Police officer: Pleading insanity, then?
  • Used cunningly in this Stolen Pixels, lampooning Tabula Rasa:
    "Anyway, hope you and little Jim are well. Send some chocolate or some pornography! The Forean stuff we have here just isn't doing it for us."
  • The title of Demon Eater is another "both" example: Saturno is a demon who eats, and an eater of demons.
  • In the Punyverse arc of Sluggy Freelance, after the transport that Torg and Riff are on leaves the planet, Lord Grater's men destroy the planet. Why? Because Lord Grater told them if any ship escaped the planet, they were to destroy it immediately. Cue Face Palm.
  • Partially Clips has this comic, of the missing-hyphen variety. What makes it funny is that the person in question deliberately misinterprets the sentence to make a point about grammar, despite the very clear intended meaning.
  • xkcd's Hyphen and Jacket. Trying to lampshade it goes poorly when Black Hat Guy is around.
  • This Cyanide & Happiness' strip shows the importance of antecedents in Freudian psychology.
  • In Jerkcity, Spigot tells a story of an old man asking him, "Wanna pounda dope?" and when he answers in the affirmative, he gets pounded in the face and realizes he is the dope.
  • Lampshaded in Schlock Mercenary here. The obvious syntax (that plant means spy) is the correct one but given everything that has happened Bunni decides to double check and make sure that he wasn't some form of genetically engineered asparagus.
  • In this Skin Horse, K.T. runs up to Unity shouting "Zombie attack!" By which she means that she, a zombie, is being attacked. By zombies. And wants Unity, also a zombie, to attack them.
    Unity: Wait, what do I do?
    K.T.: Zombie-attack. With a hyphen.
    Unity: Awright! Punctuation!
  • In the Kirby Sprite Comic Warp Star, during a crossover arc with Super Mario Bros., Bowser has claimed the Star Rod (the Kirby version, which for the sake of the plot is the same as the Star Rod from Paper Mario 64) and wishes that it would make him a sandwich, but it interprets "make" as "turn into". After turning back to normal, he wishes that it would make Mario and Luigi two sandwiches, and this time it interprets "make" as "create" (Bowser's original intention), prompting Bowser to say "Oh, come on!"
  • In one Schlock Mercenary strip Aardmann came to Dr. Bunnigan saying that he broke a tooth with his kidney. When she said that was impossible, he clarified that it wasn't his tooth.note 

    Web Original 
  • TV Tropes itself has a few, many of which are chronicled in "I Thought It Meant..." For example, a Serial-Killer Killer: A killer of serial killers, or a serial killer of killers? (Both, more often than not).
    • An example rightly documented in TV Tropes:
    From the Peanuts Headscratchers page:
    Jesus, Lucy, Violet, and Patty are CRUEL to poor Charlie Brown! They expect him to get an over-commercialized tree, made of pink aluminum? Charlie brings back a tree that looks like one that would be next to the humble manger, and they all laugh at him! Even damned SNOOPY! Although it sets up a Crowning Moment Of Awesome with the "That's what Christmas is all about" speech, I just want to wring those three bitches' neck!!
    Is it bad that I read the start of this entry as a list of 4 names, rather than an expletive and 3 names?
    Jesus is laughing at Charlie Brown for having a great Christmas spirit! The irony!
    Nope. I did it, too. As did my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
    Your parents are Ayn Rand and God?
  • The SCP Foundation has a "Six-Foot-Tall Man Eating Chicken." The SCP object is described as follows: "SCP-3467 is a six (6) foot tall, two hundred (200) pound man eating chicken. Subject is thirty five (35), slightly balding, dark brown hair and eyes, and slightly overweight. Name is Hank __________, and he has worked as a Level 1 cleanup crew for the past three years. Hank is never seen without a bucket of chicken, and only stops eating it when actually working, which is a rare occurrence in itself."
  • Came up on the forums of xkcd, so it's probably legit to quote here - a poster who as kid read a photo labeled "Lick Observatory Photograph" as an imperative.
  • An episode of Game Grumps Vs had them playing Family Feud, where the category was "Real or fake, name a famous blonde." Danny read it as "real blondes or fake blondes", completely missing the possibility of fictional characters.
  • An image making the rounds shows a Fox News headline reading "Cheeseburger Stabbing", with a confused commenter wondering whether:
  • The "Florida Man" meme comes from reading bizarre headlines about various male residents of Florida as instead being about a super hero (or super villain) by the name of Florida Man.
  • Some of Thomas Sanders sketches are based on these. Among others, when he rides past a yard sale, he asks the owners how much the yard would cost him.

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of Count Duckula has a joke involving the Dumb Muscle being given the instruction: "See this lever here? When I nod my head, I want you to hit it as hard as you can."
  • From a Mickey MouseWorks short adapting Around the World in 80 Days, which was recycled for the House of Mouse episode "House of Scrooge":
    Mickey Mouse: Put down that broom and pack your bags! We're going Around the World in 80 Days! Come on, let's go!
    Goofy: What's the big hurry? We're not leavin' for eighty days.
    Mickey: (Aside Glance.)
  • A vintage Looney Tunes short, "The Ducksters" has Daffy Duck as the host of a quiz show, "Brought to you by the Eagle Hand-Laundry. Are your eagle's hands dirty? We'll wash 'em clean!"
    • In Duck Dodgers in the 24スth Century, Daffy Duck (Duck Dodgers) uses a Disintegrating Pistol against Marvin the Martian. Unfortunately, Daffy's pistol crumbles into powder when he pulls the trigger.
    Duck Dodgers: Well, whaddaya know? It... disintegrated.
    • He also dons a "Disintegration-Proof Vest" — which remains intact while utterly failing to protect him from being disintegrated.
    • Bugs and Daffy have a Duck Season, Rabbit Season argument in Rabbit Seasoning:
    Daffy: Say, what's the matter with you, anyway! Don't you even know a rabbit when you see one? Hmm?
    Bugs: It's true, doc, I'm a rabbit, all right. Would you like to shoot me now or wait till I get home?
    Daffy: Shoot him now! Shoot him!
    'Bugs: You keep out of this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
    Daffy: He does so have to shoot me now! I demand that you shoot me now! Nyah! [Elmer shoots Daffy]
    Daffy: Let's run through that again.
    Bugs: Okay. Would you like to shoot me now, or wait till you get home?
    Daffy [in a calm voice]: Shoot him now, shoot him now.
    Bugs [in a calm voice]: You keep out of this, he doesn't have to shoot you now.
    Daffy: Ha! That's it! Hold it right there! Pronoun trouble. It's not "he doesn't have to shoot ''you'' now", it's "he doesn't have to shoot ''me'' now". Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! So shoot me now! [Elmer shoots Daffy once again].
    Bugs: Ye-es?
    Daffy: Oh, no you don't. Not again, sorry. This time we'll try it from the other end. Look, you're a hunter, right?
    Elmer: Wight.
    Daffy: And this is rabbit season, right?
    Elmer: Wight.
    Bugs: And if he was a rabbit, what would you do?
    Daffy: Yeah, you're so smart? If I was a rabbit, what would you do?
    Elmer: Well, I'd - [Elmer aims his gun at Daffy]
    Daffy [worriedly]: Not again. [Elmer blasts Daffy once more]
  • [adult swim] once had a letter asking whether the Dethklok's song Murmaider, described in-show as about "Mermaid Murder" meant mermaids being murdered or mermaids doing the murdering. [adult swim]'s response worked in both scenarios.
  • Paddington has also done the "when I nod my head, you hit it" joke. To Paddington's credit, he does ask Mr. Curry if he's sure that's what he wants, but Mr. Curry just tells him to be quiet and do as he's told...
  • A sketch in Sheep in the Big City featured two daredevils attempting to perform a stunt with the man eating cheese. No, the cheese doesn't eat people, it was just a man... eating cheese.
  • In The Tick episode in Europe, Tick encounters the two Fortissimo Brothers, who, he is told, have the strength of 10 men. He then asks, "Is that five men each or 20 all together?"
  • In the "Treehouse of Horror VI" episode of The Simpsons, school janitor Willie has left a note over the thermostat reading "Do Not Touch - Willie." Homer takes a look and says, "'Do not touch Willie.' Good advice!" and proceeds to turn up the thermostat, leading to played-for-laughs tragic results.
  • In the Animaniacs short King Yakko, when the dictator of Dunlikus is defending his fashion choices.
    Dictator: This is the uniform of a great man!
    Yakko: Does he know you're wearing it?
    • There are many other examples too, the most notable being "Garage Sale of the Century", in which the Warners interpret it as an actual sale of a garage.
    • This exchange from "Hercule Yakko".
      Yakko: Number one sister, dust for prints!
      Dot: I found Prince!
      Yakko: No no no, fingerprints!
      Dot: (exchanges an awkward look with Prince) I don't think so.
    • In "Turkey Jerky", after Yakko is told to "Give me the bird!" (a literal bird, in this case the titular turkey), he replies "We'd love to, really, but the FOX censors won't allow it."
    • In "The Warners & the Beanstalk", after Dot pulls out one of the giant's nose hairs, he protests "Ow! That smarted me!" Yakko's response is "I doubt it."
    • This Good Idea Bad Idea sketch gives us the following:
      Good idea: Playing catch with your grandfather.note 
      Bad idea: Playing catch with your grandfather.note 
  • Kappa Mikey had a pirate tell Gonard to "Feed my parrot." Gonard threw the parrot in the water. After it was eaten by a shark, the pirate complained, but Gonard said, "I did feed your parrot. I fed it to a shark."
  • The South Park episode "Chickenlover" has this exchange.
    Police officer: This time, he made love to Carla Weathers' prize chicken. She's catatonic.
    Barbrady: Who, Carla Weathers or the chicken?
    • In a later episode, Cartman becomes quite frustrated when it was unclear whether his classification as "wizard king" made him a king and a wizard concurrently, or king of the wizards.
  • From the Maya the Bee movie:
    Hank: How can you sleep when my boy's missing?
    Hornet: What's he missing, boss?
  • In season 4 of Archer, ISIS is in charge of security at a high-end restaurant. This also requires the operatives to be undercover, where they are berated by the chef.
    Lance: We're not making food, people! We're creating cuisine! Food is what a dog eats! Or a tourist!
    Sterling: Wait, a dog ate a tourist? (Has a tomato thrown at him) WHAT? THAT WAS AMBIGUOUSLY WORDED!
  • Discussed on ChalkZone whenever Rudy Tabootie talks to his friend Snap about his idea for a comic about Vampire Cannibals, most notably with Snap asking whether they're vampires that eat other vampires or if they're cannibals that happen to be vampires. This eventually proves to cause serious problems for Rudy in the episode "Vampire Cannibals of New York" when Gore, the Vampire Cannibal King, decides to eat Rudy and responds to his claims that Vampire Cannibals only eat other vampires by pointing out that it was never made clear.
  • The Regular Show episode Snow Tubing gives us this example:
    Mordecai: Don't worry, Rigby knows this hill like the back of his hand!
    Margaret: [spots Eileen and Rigby hurtling down the mountain] What's that?!
    Mordecai: [pointing to his own hand] It's like this part of your hand right here.
  • A 1950s Popeye cartoon taking place in a gym had Olive (who ate his spinach and cleaned the floor with Bluto) holding Popeye up in the air and repeatedly kissing him:
    Popeye: Don't! Stop! Don't! Stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! (rapid fire) Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop!

    Real Life 
  • Perhaps one of the most important examples of this is the words "wait don't stop". "Wait...don't stop..." means someone will probably be staying over for breakfast the next morning, while "Wait! Don't! Stop!" means you have a good shot at learning the difference.
  • Every trial attorney is taught the dangers of poorly chosen syntax with some variant of the following riposte by a cagey witness.
    Atty: Mr. Smith, did you or did you not clandestinely meet with Miss Peters on that evening?
    Witness: Yes.
    • While the opposing attorney could object to the question, a savvy attorney with a reliable witness will let it pass so the witness can get his jab in.
  • Averted almost entirely in languages like Lojban, where things like "rogue demon hunter" can be made to be exactly what you want. "Rogue demon hunter" taken word-for-word would translate into "rogue demon who at-unspecified-time hunts"note , while you could easily use a couple extra words to specify whatever statement you want. Ironically, the trick is actually to decide how you want to describe "rogue"note  and "demon"note .
    • Hence the Light Bulb Joke about Lojban speakers: "One to figure out what to change it to and one to figure out what kind of bulb emits broken light."
  • 1327, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March, wanted to kill King Edward II, but did not want to leave incriminating evidence. Assassins demanded a written warrant. Lord March wrote "Nolite Edwardum occidere timere bonum est." which depends on the comma: "Nolite Edwardum occidere , timere bonum est." = "Don't KILL Edward. It is good to fear." "Nolite Edwardum occidere timere , bonum est." = "Don't be AFRAID of killing Edward. All is well."
  • Lampshaded by two phrases commonly spread around to encourage proper comma usage and capitalizationnote :
    1. "Let's eat, Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat Grandma!"
    2. "I helped my uncle Jack off a horse." vs. "I helped my uncle jack off a horse."
  • Irish Sky News, reporting on the Hurricane Katrina, used the caption: "Bush: One of the worst disasters to hit the US".
  • "A woman without her man is useless." Can also be read as "A woman: without her, man is useless."
  • A sign at a Souplantation (a all-you-can-eat, buffet-style restaurant in some areas of the U.S.) reads "Please eat all food on premises." (No news yet on whether anyone has taken up the challenge.)
  • Posted sign in a bathroom: "Employees must wash hands before returning to work." (If no employee comes in to wash your hands, can you just wash them yourself?)
    • Just outside the door, "Baby Changing Table." You'll never see that happen. They can't reach.
    • Not Always Right has a case of a Literal-Minded customer seeing such a sign and waiting in the restroom for someone to wash her hands for her.
  • Pepsi's motto "Live For Now" takes on a darker meaning if you insert a comma: "Live, For Now". Stephen Colbert made this joke on the 8/16/2012 show of The Colbert Report.
  • The supposedly true story of a woman who spends a fortune to obtain something she wants after her husband responds to her telegram with "No price too high," when he meant, "No. Price too high."
  • There's a well-known Russian phrase that is a deliberate invocation of this trope: "execute musn't pardon" ("казнить нельзя помиловать"). Depending on where you put the comma, this either calls for the person to be executed or set free (it sounds better in Russian). The expression refers to an ambiguous situation with mutually exclusive outcomes. The usual English translation is "Pardon impossible to be executed", which could mean either "Pardon; impossible to be executed" or "Pardon impossible; to be executed." Without added punctuation, it has a third meaning: that a pardon could not be processed.
  • In Finnish, the phrase goes Armoa ei Siperiaan (Mercy Not to Siberia). A convict has applied for clemency from the Czar, and the reply is without comma. The reply can be either Armoa, ei Siperiaan (Mercy, Not to Siberia) meaning Czar has granted clemency, or Armoa ei, Siperiaan (Mercy Not, to Siberia), which will mean a lenghty voyage to far east... Schoolteachers often use this sentence as example of importance of good punctuation.
  • Linguistics, psychology, and computer science texts often discuss the difficulty of parsing natural language due to this trope. No native English speaker would misunderstand, "Time flies like an arrow," but there are at least three alternate meanings depending on the interpretation of 'like', the validity of a metaphor depicting time as a physical object changing in time, and the personal preferences of time flies.
  • In a 'garden path sentence,' ambiguous syntax leads to misinterpretation of a phrase because a particular reading is more quickly analyzed by the reader's brain. For example, "The horse raced past the barn fell," is a perfectly grammatical sentence. If you are a native English speaker, however, there is a very high probability your brain was garden-pathed into interpreting "The horse raced past the barn" as Subject-Verb-Object. That's a complete thought, and your brain was satisfied until you got to 'fell' and were confused. However, "The horse raced past the barn" could also be a noun phrase with 'horse' as the noun and all other words modifying 'horse.' (Which horse? The horse raced past the barn. The horse that was raced past the barn fell.) This is mentioned in the Webcomics section under Dinosaur Comics as well. Interestingly, though the sentence is a famous garden-path example, it's technically ambiguous: Either the "horse raced past the barn" fell (down), or the horse (was) raced past the "barn fell", referring to the uncommon noun usage of a fellnote  identified by its concurrence with the location of the barn.
    • Some more examples of garden path sentences with explanations: The young man the boat. (Youths serve as the boat's crew.) The cool rhyme with style. (Cool people make stylistic rhymes.) The government plans to raise taxes flounder. (The government's attempt to increase taxes is floundering.) The felon escaped from jail was caught. (The escapee was caught.)
  • The movie The Valley of Gwangi was once summarized with the sentence, "A prehistoric creature terrorizes a small town until finally it is destroyed." — without making it clear whether the creature or the town has been destroyed.
  • This picture illustrates how much the meaning of a sentence can change just by adding a comma.
    • The Oxford comma can correct ambiguous syntax, but it can also introduce it. Consider the phrase "Dave, a cartoonist, and a basketball player." Is that three people, or a basketball player and Dave, who is a cartoonist? Without the second comma, it could be three people or one: Dave, who is a basketball playing cartoonist.
  • This sign on a golf course: "Any persons except players found collecting golf balls on this course will be prosecuted and have their balls removed."
  • Ancient Chinese didn't have punctuation marks, relying on context to determine the flow of a sentence instead. Jokes based on ambiguous syntax abound, including the famous 下雨天留客天留我不留; differing punctuation yields different ideas about whether a guest should stay or go on a rainy day: A: 下雨天留客 [(They say) rainy days keep visitors,]天留我不留 [the weather may keep the visitor, but I don't!]; B: 下雨天[a rainy day]留客天[is a day for keeping visitors]留我不? [Would you(, then,) keep me (here)?] 留! [Yes!]
  • Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis: A general consulted the oracle whether or not he would survive the upcoming battle. The response can be interpreted as "You will go, you will never return, you will die in the war"; or "You will go, you will return, you will never die in the war".
    • To preserve the ambiguity in English, translate it as: "You will go, you will return never; you will die in the war" vs. "You will go, you will return; never you will die in the war."
    • All of the Oracle's prophesies were like this. Other examples are the sex of a child: "son not a daughter" or the outcome of a war: "you the Romans will conquer". The only straight answer was to "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" ("no"), and even then Socrates eventually figured out the ambiguity was in the question. I.E. it could mean either "Is there anyone who is wiser than Socrates?" or "Is any random person wiser than Socrates?"
  • When Michael J. Fox first started acting, he learned there was already a Michael Fox in the Screen Actors Guild. He considered using his real middle initial "A" (for "Andrew"), but he wanted to avoid headlines like "Michael, A Fox!", so he picked the middle initial "J" in homage to actor Michael J. Pollard.
  • Advertisers and people writing the front covers of magazines sometimes fall foul of claiming things like 'Tested: seventeen shoes for every budget!'. That would imply that for each budget range, seventeen shoes were tested for those prices - and then another seventeen for the next range, and so on.
  • This case, in which an Ohio court overturned a parking violation of a woman who parked her car in an area that banned parking "any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implemented and/or non-motorized vehicle" for more than 24 hours. She argued that her car did not constitute a "motor vehicle camper", and the prosecutor argued that the law should have read "motor vehicle, camper", and that the defendant knew full well what the law actually meant. The court sided with the defendant.
  • The sometimes maddeningly-vague question that usually goes "Is this not the coolest thing you've ever seen?" Depending on how the person asking the question interprets the answer, "yes" can either mean you agree with the query, or disagree (invoking the "not" part). Answering "no" can also mean agreement, (creating a double negative) or it could mean a simple disagreement, which us usually what someone means when they say "no." It's best to either qualify your answer, or avoid a single-word response. ("Yes, that is cool.")
  • Defied in contract law in places that adhere to the doctrine of contra proferentem, where, if there is any ambiguity that could be misconstrued by either or both parties, the court is obligated to rule against the party that drafted the contract should the issue be brought to trial. This is why contracts are often written with seemingly absurdly specific stipulations.
  • Employee Review: "No one could do a better job." Does this mean that there is no one who could surpass the subject, or that having no one in the job would be better for the company?
  • The saying "spare the rod, spoil the child" can be interpreted as for or against spanking depending on how it's read. Some people think it's against spanking and means "spare the rod and instead spoil the child" when it really means "don't spare the rod or you're spoiling the child."
  • German can suffer heavily from this due to its complex grammatical structures.
    • The German language had a spelling reform in 1996 which creates quite a few of those, if followed strictly.
    Er hat das Radio kaputt gekriegt. (He broke the radio vs. He got the radio in a broken state)
    Er ist ein viel versprechender junger Politiker.(A young politician with great potential vs. A young politician that makes a lot of empty promises)
    • Jeder Mann liebt eine Frau (Every man loves at least one woman? Every man loves exactly one woman? All man love the same woman?)
    • Das Auto wird das Hindernis umfahren. Unless spoken aloud (umfahren or umfahren?), it is absolutely unclear whether the driver will run the sign over or drive around it.
    • 1916 erkrankte Maurice Ravel an der Ruhr. Considering that Ruhr is both a river in West Germany and a illness (a variation of Dysentery), it can refer to the man becoming sick of dysentery or getting sick in the area of that river.
  • French has a very funny case: "La petite brise la glace." can be both translated as "The little (girl) breaks the ice." or "The small breeze freezes her.". The funny part comes in with the fact that, for grammatical reasons, you can't punctuate this sentence, making it impossible to disambiguate it without context.
  • Another example of a sentence that changes meaning depending on punctuation: "The judge said the hairdresser was a drunken fool". Now, should that be, "The judge said, 'The hairdresser was a drunken fool.'", or "'The judge,' said the hairdresser, 'was a drunken fool.'"?
  • Newspaper headlines can fall victim to this. A case in point is "Two Cars Collide; One Sent to Hospital". It means one person, but it sounds like it means one car.

Alternative Title(s): Syntactic Ambiguity, Squinting Construction, Garden Path Sentence, A Wooden Leg Named Smith, The Purple People Eater Effect