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Ambiguous Syntax
Wesley: I'm a rogue demon hunter now.
Cordelia: Wow... so, what's a rogue demon?
Angel, "Parting Gifts"

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."

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. Note that this is easier to pull off in English than in most other languages, because English has neither grammatical genders (in French, for example, you would know that the feminine adjectives could only apply to the feminine noun) nor cases (in German, you would know that the dative adjectives could only apply to the indirect object of the sentence), leaving a lot more room for ambiguity.

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.

Examples

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    Advertising 
  • Invoked in an ad for Wolf Insurance; that is, an insurance company owned by a person named Wolf. It shows Little Red Riding Hood going through the forest when she hears some growling, and brandishes legal documents before continuing unmolested, "Wolf Insurance" here implying insurance against wolves.

    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 1984, 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.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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?"
  • 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 wondered 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.)
  • 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's that? "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.
    • Some of these are repeated ad nauseum and it was awesome.
  • 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..."
  • 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.
  • This famous exchange from Happy Gilmore sort of qualifies:
    Shooter McGavin: You're in big trouble though, pal. I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!
    Happy Gilmore: (laughing) You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?
  • 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 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!

    Gamebooks 
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • 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 lefthand version of the third example, the reader's heart goes out to those 18 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. 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 Blindsight by Peter Watts, a linguist intentionally uses an extremely ambiguous sentence to determine whether she's talking to an actual person or a mere syntax engine.
  • From The Fourth Bear:
    "The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in the hospital."
    "Critical?"
    "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 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.
  • 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, ァ 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.
  • Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, supplementary material for A Series of Unfortunate Events, contains many ambiguous sentences. Most notably, a photograph of a baby labeled "Who took this?"note 
  • 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."

    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 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, episode "Mr. Monk on Wheels":
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: [after Vince knocks over the microphone on the interrogation room tape recorder] Hmm, tough guy, ehh? [shows a 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. Randy Disher: That makes your cousin a former cop shooter.
    Vince Kuramoto: Former what?
    Lt. Randy Disher: Former cop shooter.
    Vince Kuramoto: You mean he used to shoot cops?
    Lt. Randy Disher: No. He shot someone who used to be a cop.
    Vince Kuramoto: Why didn't you say that?
    Lt. Randy 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 a finger at Vince] that makes you an accessory after the fact.
    Lt. Randy Disher: For aiding and abetting!
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: For attempted murder, which is a very, very, VERY long "goodbye"!
    • 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. From The West Wing:
    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.
  • 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."
  • 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"
  • 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 Ally, Ally 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.
  • 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."
    • 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 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!).

    Music 
  • '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."
  • 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.
    • There used to be a quiz you could take on his website. One of the questions asked which of the following sentences is ambiguous. The correct answer was "I was driving down the freeway with a rabid wolverine in my underwear." 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 man 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").
  • 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"...so, is it a group of kites with glass hands or a glass that gave kites?

    Newspapers 
  • 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."
    • 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 entfhren" - which you can roughly translate into English as "Sri Lanka's soldiers are supposed to abduct children".
  • 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.

    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.

    Puzzles 

    Radio 
  • 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."

    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.

    Theater 
  • 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:
    The Player: The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
    Rosencrantz: Good God. We're out of our depths here.
    The Player: No, no, no! He hasn't got a daughter! The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
    Rosencrantz: The old man is?
    The Player: Hamlet... in love... with the old man's daughter... the old man... thinks.
    Rosencrantz: Ah.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?"

    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.

    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."
    • Also when Thog (who pays no heed to grammar and often skips verbs) tries to explain that Nale stuck his goatee to his twin brother Elan so he'd end up in jail in his place:
    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.
  • This Cyanide and Happiness' strip shows the importance of antecedents in Freudian psychology.

    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."

    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 Mouse Works short:
    Mickey Mouse: Put down that broom and pack your bags! We're going Around the World in Eighty 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?"
    • In Duck Dodgers in the 24スth Century, Daffy Duck (Duck Dodgers) uses a Disintegrating Pistol to disintegrate Marvin the Martian. Unfortunately, the "Disintegrating Pistol" disintegrates itself.
  • [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!
    • Then later:
      Dot: I found Prince!
      Yakko: No no no, fingerprints!
    • 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!" Dot's response is "I doubt it."
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • 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."
  • While in languages like Swedish, composite words are very valuable. "Mrkh蚌ig sjukgymnast" translates to dark-haired physiotherapist, while a "Mrk h蚌ig sjuk gymnast" is a dark, hairy, sick gymnast.
    • Just as some of the hyphen-lacking examples mentioned, the syntax actually is non-ambigious... it is just that the small change of adding a space where no space should be, easily done by mistake, has a large impact on the meaning.
  • Introductory linguistics classes sometimes have homework assignments that involve analyzing the possible meanings of such phrases.
  • 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."
  • Another one that crops up in syntactical studies: I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.
  • Another good one - '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.'.
  • " A Woman without her man is useless." Is it "A woman: without her, man is useless" or is it " a woman, without her man, is useless"?
    • The first sentence is complete however. Ignoring the improper use of upper case, it would only be wrong if you didn't mean for it to say the latter - it's not really ambiguous on its own.
  • '"I see," said the blind man.' Is he saying he understands, or that he is possessed of the sense of sight? If the latter, then he is a liar. A variation on the joke that continues in the same vein goes '"I see," said the blind carpenter, as he picked up the hammer and saw.'
  • This, encouraging the proper use of 'your' vs 'you're':
    It's the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit.
  • 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.)
  • A popular image on the internet is of a Facebook post an angry man made, saying, "Fuckin a man." His friends proceed to complement him on coming out of the closet. He doesn't get it.
    • To clarify, "Fuckin a man" implies Ho Yay. "Fuckin a, man", which is what the original poster intended, is angry sarcasm, the "A" being short for "Awesome".
  • 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?)
  • 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."
  • An accidental (possibly) case during the planning of hotel Moskva in Moscow. When the architects have come up with two alternative blueprints for the hotel, they gave both to Josef Stalin to choose. Stalin didn't bother to look and simply put his signature between the two blueprints. Confused but afraid to ask, the architects decided to use both blueprints by using one of the plans for one wing and the other for the other one. The result is the hotel looking like this. In 2004, the hotel was finally demolished and rebuilt to be re-opened in 2012.
    • But still with two different wings.
  • 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." There are at least two 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.
    • The clarification 'time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana' is... even worse, really.
    • Likewise, they teach the phenomena of the 'garden path sentence,' where ambiguous syntax leads to misinterpretation of a phrase because a particular reading is more quickly analyzed by the recipient's brain. For example, "The horse raced past the barn fell," is a perfectly grammatical sentence. If you are a native English speaker, 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 raced past the barn fell.) This is mentioned in the Webcomics section under Dinosaur Comics as well.
      • Extra points for the sentence being not only a garden-path, but still being ambiguous even when complete: 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 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.
  • 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."
  • A quite Black Humour example if your mind works that way, and one that works best read aloud: What's the best thing about twenty-six-year-olds? There's twenty of them.
  • Beloved of teachers everywhere: 'Can I go to the toilet, sir?' 'I don't know, can you?'
  • Ambiguity of this magnitude is guaranteed to cause immense distress to autistic listeners. Consider yourself warned.
  • Ancient Chinese didn't have punctuation marks, relying on context and filler words to determine the flow of a sentence instead. Cue a million ambiguous wording jokes, the most famous of which is 下雨天留客天留我不留.
  • 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".
    • 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.
  • "Log" (as in logarithm) means three different things depending on the context it is used in. In Mathematics and Physics, it means log to base e (the natural log). In Engineering and Chemistry, it means log to base 10 (the common log). In Computer Science and Computational Mathematics, it means log to base 2 (the binary log). Have fun if your college exam doesn't specify context. For this reason, they are often (but far from always) named ln (base e), lg (base 10), and lb (base 2), respectively.
    • Then again, you can easily convert an ambiguous log statement into a base of your choosing.

Altum VideturLanguage TropesAnimal Talk
Ambiguous SituationThis Might Be an IndexAmbiguous Time Period
    Double MeaningCovert Distress Code

alternative title(s): Syntactic Ambiguity; Squinting Construction; Garden Path Sentence; A Wooden Leg Named Smith; The Purple People Eater Effect
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