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Here is a question I've encountered:

How can you lift an elephant with one hand?

The answer provided is:

It is not a problem, since you will never find an elephant with one hand.

Now, if I actually want this sentence to mean that can I lift an elephant with a single hand (meaning my own hand), how would I say that?

11 Answers 11

52

The question is perfectly grammatical, but ambiguous (which is part of the joke, actually). Your own interpretation is just as valid as the one stated by the answer and makes more sense from a practical point of view.

It's possible to remove the ambiguity with one of the alternatives provided by the other answers but, really, you shouldn't.

  • 3
    I don't think it's a question of grammar but of semantics. the OP's question is perfectly grammatical, and makes sense. – Mari-Lou A Apr 10 '17 at 14:29
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    @Mari-LouA yes, thanks. I meant that the grammatical 'breakdown' of the question can be done in two different ways, making it 'grammatically ambiguous', not wrong. Edited to make that more clear. – Glorfindel Apr 10 '17 at 15:02
  • The question is really not ambiguous. The joke is that you are taking something that is not ambiguous and forcing it to become so. – Kevin Apr 10 '17 at 17:14
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    @Kevin It's not necessarily semantically ambiguous, but it is grammatically ambiguous. "How can you lift an elephant with one hand?", "How can you lift an elephant with two forklifts?" and "How can you lift an elephant with three legs?" are identical in construction, but are likely to be understood differently in a non-joke context because of the meaning. The raw grammar of the sentence can be parsed either way, but the meaning (semantics) favors one over the other. – R.M. Apr 10 '17 at 20:05
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    In the same vein there's the classic pair "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." It's all in the parsing. – Ethan Bolker Apr 12 '17 at 12:35
33

One possibility is:

Using only one of your hands, how can you lift an elephant?

Even "How can you lift an elephant using only one hand" is ambiguous. The elephant may be using one of your hands.

"How can you lift an elephant with just one of your hands?" may be interpreted as an elephant that has stolen one of your hands, but not the other.

To be unambiguous, the sentence must be constructed such that the modifier is not adjacent to the object.

26

A possible re-writing is

How can you lift an elephant one-handed?

One-handed can act as either a adjective or an adverb. If it is placed after the object ("elephant"), the word order implies that it is being used in the adverbial sense, and so is modifying the verb ("lift") rather than the object. If you wanted to ask the "joke" sense of the question, you would instead say

How can you lift a one-handed elephant?

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    +1. This one requires an absolutely preposterous amount of tinkering with grammar to beat. The only way I can think of is to consider one-handed some kind of pseudo-heraldic postpositioned adjective: “I don’t know, I can only ever find elephants rampant, never any elephants one-handed”. And that is a stretch. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 10 '17 at 14:41
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    @JanusBahsJacquet "One-handedly" on the other hand is a word I've heard - and even used - a lot. – Araucaria Apr 10 '17 at 15:34
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    @Araucaria Even better. Can’t think of any way to get around that one. And if you were the type of person who’d be fine with wrangling one-handedly into the category of postpositive heraldic adjectives, then you should be immediately shot, so your rebuttal wouldn’t matter anyway. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 10 '17 at 15:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Shot or not, they’d simply be wrong as “one-handedly” is an adverb and not (could not be) an adjective. – KRyan Apr 10 '17 at 20:30
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    @KRyan That was rather my point. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 10 '17 at 20:41
13

Answer:

Like this:

How can you lift an elephant one-handedly?

A definition of one-handedly from Oxford dictionaries:

Adverb

With or using only one hand.


Explanation of why it works ...

Some English grammar

There is a reason why this sentence—in contrast to the Original Poster's more intriguing one—is unambiguous.

In the original example, the preposition phrase with one hand could be modifying the verb phrase lift an elephant, or it could be modifying the noun elephant. One reason for this is that preposition phrases in English can modify verb phrases:

  • [[climb mountains] at the weekend]

And they can also modify nouns:

  • [[parties] at the weekend]

The example in this answer post, on the other hand, uses an adverb to modify the verb phrase lift an elephant. Adverbs can freely modify verb phrases:

  • It quickly evaporated
  • It evaporated quickly

But adverbs can't premodify nouns:

  • *It was a quickly evaporation (ungrammatical)

And they rarely postmodify them either:

  • *It was an evaporation quickly. (ungrammatical)

And that's why the adverb one-handedly can only be modifying the verb phrase lift an elephant and not the noun phrase elephant.


Notes for grammar junkies

It used to be commonly thought that adverbs never modified nouns. However, recent work in corpus linguistics has shown this to not be true. Certain types of adverbs can very occasionally postmodify certain types of noun:

- The riots recently are going to cause problem for years to come.

Here we see recently modifying the noun riots. This can't be a sentence adverb, because the sentence as a whole is referring to the future, whereas recently refers to the recent past.

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    I see that although Oxford dictionaries also have an entry for (unexceptional) adjectival one-legged, they don't go so far as to explicitly define adverbial one-leggedly. That one might seem "an adverb too far" when just presented in isolation, but apparently it's far from unknown in Google Books. – FumbleFingers Apr 10 '17 at 16:11
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    @JanusBahsJacquet ... Here's a paper by John Payne, R Huddlestion and GK Pullum - one of the first, if not the first, to document the postmodification of English nouns by adverbs. Their arguments are much more persuasive than mine! (I can't remember all or many of them) The most pertinent info is in the second half of that paper. It's an interesting paper altogether, though, if you're interested in English grammar. – Araucaria Apr 10 '17 at 20:25
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    @FumbleFingers The theory is that we would expect most modern adjectives to be modifiable by the suffix -ly in order to turn them into adverbs. Dictionaries may not list them, but because this is a productive affix, we should be able to add -ly to many adjectives to produce adverbs that have never been used before pefectly grammatically. It's nice to see some evidence for that assertion and I think you're definitely right there. – Araucaria Apr 10 '17 at 20:49
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    Ignoring howlers like Webster's dord, if something appears in a dictionary, it must in some meaningful sense be a "word". But I'm sure you and I would agree that the implied corollary (if it's not in the dictionary, it's not a word) can't be relied on. I like your earthquakes recently example, but it's way past my pay grade to get involved in deciding exactly why it's "acceptable" (which it is, just about, to me). – FumbleFingers Apr 10 '17 at 20:52
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    @Mari-LouA That the postmodification of nouns with adverbs is very rare is not in dispute. So any Google searcher would expect the post-modification of a noun by an adverb to be far scarcer than that by an adjective. Here's an attested example for you "This behaviour is not unlike the many negative reactions recently to the prospect of taxpayers' money being used to bail out the banking system." – Araucaria Apr 11 '17 at 10:43
8

How can you lift an elephant using one hand?

is less ambiguous, but still someone may say he has never seen an elephant using a hand.

Using only one hand, how can you lift an elephant?

is unambiguous that the lifting must be done using only one hand.

One meaning of lift is

Raise (a person's spirits or confidence)

so if the elephant is feeling depressed perhaps offering it a bun, using one hand, may lift it.

5

As stated the sentence is ambiguous, to remove the ambiguity you could rewrite as:

How can you lift an elephant by using just one of your hands?

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    Dammit, all the elephants I could find had both my hands! Tongue-in-cheek, of course, but this is still slightly ambiguous. – terdon Apr 10 '17 at 14:15
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    @terdon That's unfortunate. Thankfully, all of the elephants I could find had none of my hands. – David Richerby Apr 10 '17 at 14:43
  • Hmm OK, let's try again, @terdon – Gary Apr 10 '17 at 15:08
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    That'll work :) – terdon Apr 10 '17 at 15:12
2

Just one point that seems to be missing, so far.

The word hand would hardly be used to refer either to an elephant's legs, or paws,
(as far as my understanding - based chiefly on documentaries - goes).

So the question isn't so ambiguous, really, merely a joke, based on a falsely perceived ambiguity.

  • That’s precisely why you’ll never find an elephant with one hand. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 10 '17 at 16:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet So why assume that the question is meant like that? – m.a.a. Apr 10 '17 at 16:19
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    Nobody is assuming anything. The question here is how to phrase the question in question (too many questions) in a way that the alternative parsing is not possible. There’s no assumption that anyone will realistically interpret the original question in the way the punchline of the joke does. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 10 '17 at 16:24
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    The joke is, at first the listener is supposed to interpret the "hand" in the question as their own hand with which they are asked to lift an elephant. Then the joke-teller gives an answer with an absurd (although technically logical) interpretation of the question. The question appears to be asking how to phrase the "how can you" question without allowing some wiseacre to make this joke. – David K Apr 10 '17 at 16:26
1

How can you single-handedly lift an elephant?

single-handedly definition retrieved from Cambridge Dictionary

0

I'd go with the following, since it uses a subordinate clause to directly link the hand to you as the subject.

How can you, using only a single hand, lift an elephant?

-1

You need context or you need to rewrite it. If you had context we'd know what you meant. If you don't we guess, but probably because most folks know you can't pick up an elephant with one hand (see, I just did it again, but now there is context.) and probably because it is irrational to think you meant an elephant with one hand that someone wanted to pick up with some mode of effort, namely the talking human's one hand and not a single handed Olyphant, you don't know.

or,

Hey, see this elephant with one hand? How can I pick Dumbo up with one hand, over my head. Wait...Hey, see that deformed elephant with one foots? He needs someone to pick him up, so he can eat peanuts and alfalfa. I bet I can lift him up with one hand.

-1

How can you, with one hand, lift an elephant.

Moving the phrase changes the ambiguity. You could respond that you have more than one hand, but that's a weak argument.

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