Ambiguous sentences

I was proofing my roommate’s paper last night, and one sentence of his got me to thinking. (I forget what it was now) After about a minute I had several generations of inbred thoughts, and the following set of sentences.

I was talking with some friends the other day about ambiguous sentences.
One friend said they’re entertaining, in the right context.
Another friend said they’re annoying to find when editing someone else’s paper.
A third friend said they’re often a product of laziness.
I think they’re all right.

I realize it’s extremely contrived, but I was entertained. And it doesn’t get much more MPSIMS than that.

I think they can be very revealing of the mindset of the author.

Often times, if you confront them with the ambigous sentence without telling them specifically what makes it ambiguous, they don’t know what you mean. If you ask them to rephrase it, then that will tell you what they were thinking, but it also tells you what they weren’t thinking.

My favorite sentence appeared on a sign in a photo I have:

“Park police snowmobiles here only.”

It’s just 5 words long, but I can think of 8 ways to interpret it right off the bat:
“Park” can refer to the act of parking, or can mean a park as in a public recreational area. And there are four different words that “only” might be modifying. So all those combinations are legit. Maybe “only” is supposed to modify 2 or 3 or all 4 of the other words, or maybe there are even more possibilities. Some of these don’t have an explicit verb and some might argue their sentence status, but hey.

Me: [insert lame “asking-out” sentence here]

Almost every girl I have ever asked out: Maybe

Sign outside a strip club:

Drop Dead Gorgeous Ladies Here

I’ve forgotten where I read this example of a perfectly ambiguous sentence:

“I saw that petrol can explode”.

Eek! :eek:

My brother once got a catalogue which announced a “Great Big Shirt Sale” and began mulling the numerous interpretations of the phrase. “Is it a sale on big shirts that are great? Or a great sale of big shirts? Or is “great big” an idiomatic phrase modifying “shirt”? Or does that “great big” modify “sale” instead? Or… ?”

The ambiguous friends:

Paul sat down next to Steven. He put his hand on his knee.

This one may not be fair, since it was in a translation from Japanese, but:

“Let’s shoot kids playing baseball with a camcorder!”

And the classic:

Time flies like an arrow.

There are apparently more than half a dozen distinct ways to interpret this (I wish I could get them all), including:

Time moves in the way that an arrow moves
‘Time flies’ (a kind of insect, dontcha know) are particularly fond of an arrow
Please measure the speed of flies, using the same method as you would measure the speed of an arrow

“Please retain your ticket after being punched by the inspector”.

And my favourite piece of graffiti from a railway line in Sydney: RIDE MORE BICYCLES!

There was also a wonderful handmade traffic sign in a cul de sac:

I vaguely remember an old SNL sketch in which the director of a nuclear power facility is giving a retirement speech and says something like:

“Just remember one thing: you can never put too much water on the reactor.”

I’m very annoyed by a sign that says “Badge holders park only in disabled bays” I know what it means, but it seems tantalising that it might forbid (1) handicapped people parking elsewhere (2) handicapped people doing anything ELSE in disabled bays (3) People who also hold anything OTHER than badges parking there… wait, I think I misphrased it. But it was very confusing. About the only thing it couldn’t mean was what it MEANT to mean.

What about the disclaimer message on almost every video and a lot of tv movies? I can’t remember it exactly, but it’s something like:

This film has been modified. It has been formatted to fit your screen.

It’s purposely ambiguous, but I don’t know why they don’t just clarify what they did.

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

I was always sad when I saw that sign. Then I saw another that said “SLOW MEN WORKING.”

I felt better then–at least the poor kids have jobs waiting for them.

Hmmm. . . great minds steal things from the same sources.

Eats shoots and leaves.
My favorite joke ever.

When I came across a sign that said: SLOW SCHOOL CROSSING, I mused, “If it’s such a slow school, why can’t I see it crossing?”