I have seen these 'riddles' so frequently that they get on my nerves now. I'm not sure, but aren't they grammatically incorrect?

The riddle is as follows: "Nothing starts with an N and ends with a G. Prove me wrong" And then the whole point of it is that the word 'Nothing' does start with an N and ends with an G.

But shouldn't the word as well as the letters be enclosed in quotes for them to not be used semantically?

Would I be incorrect in my assessment below?

  1. Nothing starts with an N and ends with a G.

Literally means that there doesn't exist anything that starts with an N and ends with a G. (The meaning of the word 'nothing' is taken into account)

  1. 'Nothing' starts with an 'N' and ends with a 'G'.

Means that the word 'Nothing' is what we're talking about, but ignoring its definition.

I know that such riddles are for 'fun' yada yada, but I simply want to confirm.

  • Why did you write "ends with E" about the word "Nothing"?
    – Chaim
    Oct 26, 2022 at 1:56
  • 4
    The point of the joke in the riddle is to leave the ambiguity. Your version has no ambiguity, thus no riddle. Oct 26, 2022 at 1:56
  • 2
    This type of Puzzle works in verbal form , not written form. In verbal form , the "QUOTES" are hidden & not a concern.
    – Prem
    Oct 26, 2022 at 5:41
  • Yes, the usual protocol is to offset a word-used-as-a-word (ie not semantically) (the process also known as 'mention' rather than 'use'). But not all style guides agree on this. And it has been covered here before [What is the best way to mention a word – italics quotes or .....?] Oct 26, 2022 at 14:18
  • It's definitely opinion-based but if someone asked How do you spell "Nothing"? you wouldn't reply "open quote N O T H I N G close quote".
    – Stuart F
    Oct 27, 2022 at 8:37

1 Answer 1


In answer to your question, no, they are not grammatically incorrect. Grammar is how to fit pieces of the spoken language together. Grammar is all about arranging things, and it has two principal components:

  1. Morphology is how you arrange language elements smaller than words together to create words.
  2. Syntax is how you arrange words together to create language elements larger than a word, such as phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Because your two sentences use the same words in the same order, they have the same grammar. And there is nothing wrong with their grammar, either.

Occasionally using a word as the word itself rather that for what it means does affect the grammar in that it can elicit changes in syntax or morphology. Compare Those sheep are hard to catch with Sheep is easy to say and you’ll see what I mean. Obviously those are both grammatical.

But mostly there’s not much to give it away. If you always slavishly follow whatever your writing teacher told you to do, you’ll sometimes produce impossible nonsense. As one example,a sentence like this one:

Cwmystwyth is easy to get to but hard to say.

is unquestionably grammatical. It’s also acceptably encoded in writing, for to do anything else would cause one of its two clauses governed by its shared subject to mean the wrong thing to the reader.

Why? Because writing technology just isn’t very good at representing the real language, that’s why. But somehow we get by, and that’s ok, too. After all, the person listening to my sentence about Cwmystwyth won’t be confused, and neither will the listener to your riddle. Don’t ruin things by being too fussy.

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