English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Historical examples:

  • Croesus asked the oracle what would happen if he attacked Persia. The reply: ‘A mighty empire will be humbled’.

  • Thank you so much for the book. I shall lose no time in reading it.

Modern example:

I am opposed to taxes which slow economic growth.


The anthropologists went to a remote area and took photographs of some native women, but they weren't developed.

What is the term used for these examples?

share|improve this question
You might want to change the title into a question which summarises what you're asking. – Steve Melnikoff Mar 4 '11 at 20:38
@Steve, actually the title is a nice example and a very intriguing one. – Ilya Kogan Mar 4 '11 at 20:41
You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish – user5531 Mar 16 '11 at 15:42
Possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/7338/… – Cerberus Mar 16 '11 at 17:39
I have an entire book of these taken from newspapers at home, titled "Red Tape Holds Up Bridge" – T.E.D. Sep 22 '11 at 12:29
up vote 11 down vote accepted

These are examples of amphibology. To quote its Wikipedia entry:

Amphibology or amphiboly (from the Greek ἀμφιβολία, amphibolia) is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence.

share|improve this answer
Much as I love amphibology, I think it has to be deliberate. – Malvolio Mar 16 '11 at 20:06
@malvolio I think it has to be deliberate too, how else could those clever amphibologies appear! (Amphibologizing your comment, if it wasn't already, deliberately.) – jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 1:32

These are examples of syntactic ambiguity. They demonstrate ambiguity between alternate syntactic structures underlying a sentence.

  • The man saw the boy with the binoculars.
  • They are hunting dogs.
  • Free whales.
  • Police help dog bite victim.
  • He saw that gas can explode.
  • We saw her duck.
  • The kiwi eats roots and leaves.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_linguistic_example_sentences for this and other types of lexical ambiguity.

share|improve this answer
In some cases the ambiguity is syntactic, but in other cases it's semantic or even pragmatic. For example, "A mighty empire will be humbled" is definitely not a sentence whose syntax is ambiguous, and I'm not sure whether its semantics are ambiguous either. It's the context that makes it ambiguous. Pragmatic ambiguity: linguistlessons.blogspot.com/2011/01/pragmatic-ambiguity.html – Ilya Kogan Mar 4 '11 at 20:44
I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith... – PSU Mar 4 '11 at 20:46
Ewe are on the write path – user5531 Mar 4 '11 at 20:48
@Ilya Kogan: Yes, I didn't quite notice, but the examples in the question body are not the same as the one in the headline. But the page I linked to covers all kinds of ambiguity. – Robusto Mar 4 '11 at 20:51
I thought it was the Panda, which eats, shoots and leaves – mplungjan Mar 20 '11 at 14:31

This is a classic example of a misplaced modifier.

share|improve this answer

The sentence in your title contains a classical figure of speech commonly called zeugma (your other sentences are rather double entendre or simply ambiguous, as the others have mentioned). See Wikipedia on zeugma and syllepsis; what Wikipedia calls syllepsis is usually simply called zeugma, as syllepsis is the most common significant application of zeugma in rhetoric and literature.

Zeugma (from the Greek: ζεῦγμα, zeûgma, meaning "yoke") is a figure of speech describing the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single common verb or noun. A zeugma employs both ellipsis, the omission of words which are easily understood, and parallelism, the balance of several words or phrases. The result is a series of similar phrases joined or yoked together by a common and implied noun or verb.


Syllepsis, also known as semantic zeugma, is a particular type of zeugma in which the clauses disagree in either meaning or grammar. The governing word may change meaning with respect to the other words it modifies. This creates a semantic incongruity that is often humorous. Alternatively, a syllepsis may contain a governing word or phrase that does not agree grammatically with one or more of its distributed terms. This is an intentional construction in which rules of grammar are bent for stylistic effect.

See my answer to a similar question here: Books and other things with the same name .

share|improve this answer

Those are examples of double entendres.

share|improve this answer
A double entendre is usually reserved for double meanings where the other meaning is sexual. – Henry Mar 7 '11 at 4:21
@Henry: Merriam-Webster mentions "usually risqué" for definition 2 and "ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation" as definition 1. – nmichaels Mar 10 '11 at 22:49
@nmichaels: I'm not entirely clear what definition 1 there is supposed to cover that definition 2 doesn't (the OED says only "A double meaning; a word or phrase having a double sense, esp. as used to convey an indelicate meaning," and the MW learner's dictionary linked to from there only seems to include the second). Regardless, in actual usage, one of the interpretations of a "double entendre" is usually, as the OED so British-ly puts it, "indelicate." – Henry Mar 10 '11 at 23:42
@henry It seems that you are implying that the selected examples are not as racy as I thought? My mind must be in the gutter -- I was sure they were doubles entendres. – jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 1:26
@nmichaels "Adianoeta" is sometimes suggested as synonym for "double entendre" . I think this supports your view on the flexibility of "double entendre" . – jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 1:31

While previous answers have correctly described the technical names for the ambiguity contained in these statements, I believe that they represent an inherent ambiguity and lack of structure in modern English that is less present in other languages.

For example, my son eats "Organic Baby Rice". Is this rice made of organic babies? Similarly how is a "bamboo cage" different to a "bird cage"? One implies a cage constructed of it's modifier, another the intended prisoner. For comparison, French distinguishes between "riz de bébé" and "riz pour bébé". While these examples are trivial, I believe they illustrate the point.

share|improve this answer

This is an example of a Garden Path sentence

share|improve this answer
Paraprosdokian is a sentence that semantically leads one way but then unexpectedly turns another. A garden path sentence does so syntactically. Most of the OPs examples have two distinct meanings and not two distinct parsings. – Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 18:30
I'm not upvoting it because it doesn't seem to be the correct answer, but thanks for the term! – Andrew Grimm Sep 19 '11 at 4:09

Could this be a "dangling participle?" The famous one in medicine is "Studies on monkeys using endoscopes," but then someone remarked that there is always a monkey at the end of an endoscope.

share|improve this answer

Those are examples of dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier causes ambiguity in a sentence because the object to which a modifier refers is unclear.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.