Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo

Status: Linguistic puzzle
Check out these parsing challenges over at linguistlist.org. It took me a good 15 or 20 minutes to figure out why they make sense. (Though I'm sure some people will figure them out immediately.) The first one is this sentence:

Dogs dogs dog dog dogs.

It's a legitimate english sentence. To figure out how this is so, it helps to compare it to the sentence: Cats dogs chase catch mice. (They both share the same structure.)

The linguist list folks then point out that the word 'buffalo' can also serve as the basis for a similar sentence:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

And if you consider the possibility of Buffalo in the city of Buffalo being 'Buffalo buffalo', you can get this sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Linguist list actually strings 10 'buffalo' together as one sentence, but I think only 8 can be used, since to 'Buffalo buffalo' can't be used as a verb. (via Reddit)


Posted on Sat Jul 22, 2006


Although any writer who wouldn't want his readers to end up in a mental hospital, might have considered the use of punctuation marks. 😊
(after the first and third dog)

Did take me a couple of maddening minutes to figure it out. (btw. never heard about to buffalo before)
Posted by FrostBird  in  The Old Continent, Chaos Kingdom  on  Sat Jul 22, 2006  at  03:57 PM
I told my wife about this. She had never heard of 'to buffalo' before either. But I've definitely heard it used before.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Sat Jul 22, 2006  at  05:24 PM
I think I like "Geese geese goose goose geese" even better
Posted by Vryce  on  Sat Jul 22, 2006  at  08:45 PM
Let's see if linguists can figure this one out:

Retards retards retard retard retards.
Posted by Dee Dee Dee  on  Sat Jul 22, 2006  at  11:28 PM
Yeah because the sentence "Cats dogs chase catch mice" makes perfect sense.
Posted by Citizen Premier  in  spite of public outcry  on  Sat Jul 22, 2006  at  11:35 PM
These are called "embedded sentences." As when parsing any sentence, it helps if you first look for the verb(s) and the subject of each verb.

These tricks ("Dogs dogs dog dog dogs," etc.) work because many words in English can function as verbs, nouns, adjectives, and sometimes adverbs, without needing any inflection or other modification.

In his book "The Language Instinct" (published in the mid-1990s), Steven Pinker cites the example, "Buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Here "buffalo" is serving as a common noun (a large animal), an adjective (meaning of or from a city in New York state), and a transitive verb (to "buffalo" means to confuse, bewilder, or astonish). The noun "buffalo" appears as both a subject and an object. The neat trick, and one that would be impossible in some languages, is that all these distinctions are indicated purely by word order.

Pinker also cites this "triply-embedded" sentence: "Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight."
(Pinker is on the faculty at Yale, as you might have guessed.)
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  07:25 AM
Citizen Premier, that sentence does make sense. It means the cats, which dogs chase, catch mice. Does that make more sence?
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  07:34 AM
Gah, typo. I meant sense.
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  07:36 AM
buffalo buffalo, buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

I suppose if you were adressing the buffalo from buffalo ...
Posted by Dracul  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  08:54 AM
Raouls Raoul Raoul's Raouls, no? It is so obvious, my main man. Rrrraoul
Posted by Raoul  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  08:58 AM
>>Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.<<

I'm having a hard time getting my brain brain brain around around around this this this.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  11:38 AM
Whaooo I got it !

Hard for me... I'm used to different sentences in english !

For instance: Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck is clear as cristal for me... I hear that quite often in american movies 😜
Posted by Eric  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  03:57 PM
Thanks Sakano, I do get it now.
Posted by Citizen Premier  in  spite of public outcry  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  07:31 PM
A couple of these that I like are:

In discussing grammar:
John, where Bill had had "had" had had "Had had." "Had had" had had the teacher's preference.

Another, but this time without punctuation:

that that is is that that is not not is is that it it is
Posted by Jim O'Connell  on  Sun Jul 23, 2006  at  10:51 PM
There's another classic...

The player kicked the ball kicked him.

Patterns exactly like 'The player (who was) thrown the ball kicked Tom.'

There is of course the deadly 'triple embedded' sentence, which computer parsers have no difficulty with, but which human languages tend to reject.

'The cat the dog chased ate the rat' is pretty okay for most speakers...but...

'The rat the cat the dog chased bit ran away' is almost unsayable, much less understandable.

Yes, I think about this crap for a living. Parents, don't let your children go into academia.
Posted by Edward  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  01:23 AM
Nice, Edward! Your rats, cats, and dogs had me stumped for a minute:)

Jim O'Connell: I think yours actually does have me stumped... Check my solution below - am I close? (I've replaced 'that' with 'which' where possible for clarity.)

That which is, is that which is not 'not is'; is that it? It is.

It that's right, this could be taken still further:

That which is, is that which is, [and] not that which is not; that which is not [is ] not that which is. Is that it? It is not: that which is not that which is not is not that which is. That is it! Is it?


that that is is that that is not that that is not that that is not not that that is is that it it is not that that is not that that is not is not that that is that is it is it

Yeah! Parse that, MoFo!
Posted by outeast  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  04:20 AM
Oops, let me close them tar Eyetalics...</i>
Posted by outeast  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  04:23 AM
Now that my brain is fried, it's off to work I go. 😊
Posted by Christopher  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  05:49 AM
punctuation could make all of these sentences easier decipher, I would have caught on two minutes in rather than ten
Posted by Blood For Nothing  in  Somewhere in the Arctic  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  09:34 AM
I question whether these are actually valid sentences since they do not have the proper punctuation.
Posted by RebelSponge  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  09:48 AM
To Jim O'Connell, here are two to ask your Japanese friends about:

Sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi desu.

Niwa niwa niwa ni niwa tori ga imasu.

I think I remembered them correctly.
Posted by Pixie  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  10:52 AM
Actually, punctuation would be inappropriate in most of the example sentences...there's a huge difference between the sentences 'Men who like beer like women' and 'Men, who like beer, like women'. You could cheat with 'Men who like beer, like women', but that sentence instantly becomes somewhat ambiguous.
Posted by edward  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  11:16 AM
Ten occurrences are indeed easy enough to legally get away with.

You have buffalo being used as an adjective, noun, adverb, and verb, more or less.

The final sentence effectively means (adding connecting words and changing the plural form for an attempt at clarity):

Buffaloes from Buffalo which are buffaloed in the Buffalo style by other buffaloes from Buffalo, in turn buffalo in the Buffalo style other buffaloes from Buffalo."

or: Buffalo buffalo (that) Bufallo buffalo Buffalo-buffalo, (in turn) Buffalo-buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Hence: Buffalo buffalo Bufallo buffalo Buffalo buffalo, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Posted by Eric K  on  Mon Jul 24, 2006  at  12:03 PM
You could cheat with 'Men who like beer, like women', but that sentence instantly becomes somewhat ambiguous.

I vehemently disagree. I feel that that sentense with that punctuation becomes easier to parse without becomin more ambiguous at all. Unless you can point out where the ambiguity lies? To me, the comma after 'beer' signifies the omission of the word 'also' - the addition of which would make parsing far easier.

However, to complain about these being 'incorrect sentences' is to miss the point: most are puzzles rather than accurate sentences in their own right. All of those sentences could be re-written so as to be easier to parse, while any sentence that is so obtuse is a 'bad' sentence in that it fails to communicate its meaning (which is not to deny ambiguity its place, of course).

IANAL(inguist), but I believe such puzzles are usually used pedagogically, as tests of one's ability to parse writing and to use punctuation well in order to enhance readability. The latter is something remarkably few do: a surprising number of people fail to grasp that punctuation is primarily functional, its purpose to convey the speech cadences that would make a sentence like 'Dogs dogs dog dog dogs' comprehensible.

Of course, such sentences are only of use as puzzles, jokes, or exercises - readability would best be enhanced by changes in vocabulary and/or major restructuring of the sentences.
Posted by outeast  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  01:08 AM
Jim O'Connell,

These are known as "garden path" sentences, and some people treasure them.

The classic is, "the horse raced past the barn fell."

This is a simple one of mine:

"The man eating shark dropped his fork."
Posted by SicTim  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  09:22 AM
11 buffalo occurences:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

(The buffalo from Buffalo, who are buffalo'ed by buffalo from Buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo that other buffalo from Buffalo buffalo.)
Posted by DevoDog  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  10:20 AM
This reminds me of line from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which went something like: "Picture this bullet in your head."
Posted by Joe  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  10:41 PM
I vehemently disagree. I feel that that sentense with that punctuation becomes easier to parse without becomin more ambiguous at all. Unless you can point out where the ambiguity lies? To me, the comma after 'beer' signifies the omission of the word 'also' - the addition of which would make parsing far easier.

Unfortunately, commas aren't used simply to make parsing easier...they're supposed to set off separate elements in a sentence. In the sentence 'Men who like beer like women', the suject is the consituent 'men who like beer'. This is what separates it from the sentence 'Men, who like beer, like women'. They are not semantically equivalent. One is saying that "there are men who like beer, and those men like women". The other is saying "men like beer, and men also like women".

A better way of demonstrating why a comma is inappropriate would be a sentence like "The person I like, is Tom." or "The movie we're going to, will be Snakes on a Plane." Surely you wouldn't argue for the comma in those two sentences? Structurally, they're (essentially) identical to 'Dogs dogs dog dog dogs'.
Posted by Edward  on  Wed Jul 26, 2006  at  03:28 AM
Go on then, Pixie, explain the Japanese ones. (I'm learning Japanese, and they look interesting). I thought I was a bit of a master of language, but i'm kind of lost on the more complicated ones here... Must try to come up with an example in French or Spanish...
Posted by Tom K  on  Thu Jul 27, 2006  at  01:01 PM
Cats mice dog dog mice cats dog, cats catch catched cats catched cats catch. Mice cats dog dig digged digs catched cats and dogged dogs dig. Digged digs dig digged digs digged digs dig. Dig?

"Digs" can be a noun, "check out the new digs" as in a freshly built house.
Posted by Shockie  on  Sat Jul 29, 2006  at  04:31 AM
Tom K: The first one is:

Both plums (sumomo) and peaches (momo) are varieties of the peach family (momo no uchi desu). "Both" being indicated by the markers "mo" after the nouns.

The second one I heard but never really understood word for word. The gist of it is that there are two birds in the garden. The first "niwa" is the garden and the second the preposition, I believe.
Posted by Pixie  on  Sat Jul 29, 2006  at  01:09 PM
Fish fishy fished fish fish fish fished fishy fish fish.
Posted by Shockie  on  Sat Jul 29, 2006  at  09:27 PM
As for Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight, a CogSci professor at Yale discussed that one in his class when I took it about 4 years ago and it just took me 25 minutes to remember how it works. Try it out with different nouns and verbs:
"The dogs cats mice like hate fight" =
"The dogs [which dogs?] that cats [which cats?] that mice like [what do the cats do (towards the bulldogs)?] hate [what do the dogs do?] fight." OR maybe a better explanation:
"The dogs [that cats [that mice like] hate] fight."
"The dogs fight" = main clause
Which dogs? - "The ones that cats hate."
Which cats? - "The ones that mice like."

For bulldogs it would be:
"The bulldogs [that bulldogs [that those bulldogs fight] fight] fight."

It still doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it makes more sense to me when I say it like: "The bulldogs [pause] that bulldogs that bulldogs fight fight [pause] fight."

And if that actually helped anyone besides myself, I will be shocked! Go Bulldogs!!!
Posted by Jeff Friedman  on  Tue Apr 27, 2010  at  08:04 PM
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