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I recently stumbled upon this joke employing some grammar:

Q: How can you drop an egg on a concrete floor without cracking it?

A: Any way you want, concrete floors are very hard to crack.

My questions are:

  1. When it is apparent that it refers to the egg (or at least I’d assume that most people also interpret it this way), is it fair to use it instead of some other word?
  2. Or would we have to remove the so-called “ambiguity” by not using a pronoun there?
  3. Could the sentence be improved?
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2 Answers 2

When it is apparent that it refers to the egg (or at least I’d assume that most people also interpret it this way), is it fair to use it instead of some other word?

Yes.

Or would we have to remove the so-called “ambiguity” by not using a pronoun there?

No.

Could the sentence be improved?

Not really, it's fine.

It's worth noting that while the sentence is grammatically ambiguous in the use of the pronoun, its meaning is not ambiguous. The joke works precisely because you first interpret it one way without any difficulty, and then the punchline insists on interpreting it differently. If the sentence was truly ambiguous, then it wouldn't be a joke.

Grammatical ambiguity is a problem if:

  1. It leads to semantic ambiguity whether permanent (you really can't be sure what is meant) or fleeting (you can figure out what is meant, but there is a jarring moment where you are briefly unsure).
  2. The two (or more) ambiguous meanings don't amount to the same thing.
  3. You do not want to introduce this semantic ambiguity for effect, such as dramatic irony.

The straight (not joking) question, "How can you drop an egg on a concrete floor without cracking it?" does not suffer from that. If we remove the grammatical ambiguity with "How can you drop an egg on a concrete floor without cracking that egg?", it just becomes a bit clumsier, without being any clearer in practice.

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This amusing rhetorical device is referred to as a zeugma:

zeugma (n): the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense or makes sense with only one (as in “opened the door and her heart to the homeless boy”)

Jokes use wordplay. The ambiguity of the pronoun "it" allows for "it" to refer to different nouns depending on how you read the sentence. In this case, "it" refers to either the egg or the floor, though we intuitively read "it" as referring to the the egg. The thought process is that "it" must refer to the egg because we know from experience dropping an egg on the floor causes an egg, not the floor, to crack.

The answer, "the punchline," catches us off-guard due to the recontextualization of "it" so that "it" can be read as referring to the floor.

That's what makes it/"it" funny.

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6  
Actually this is a paraprosdokian, not a zeugma. You have an example of a zeugma right there, it is a completely different thing. A paraprosdokian relies on how you read the sentence, a zeugma does not. In a zeugma, there are no different readings. The one word governs two other words simultaneously, and every which way you look at it. It is not subject to interpretation. –  RegDwigнt Jun 8 at 9:29

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