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Read on as we discover the wonders of amphibology in English.
Text by:Dave Gerow

ere’s an old English riddle: An airplane crashes. Every single person on board dies. But two people survive. How is it possible? If “every single person” died, how could two people have survived?

Well, like many riddles, the trick is in the wording of the question. “Every single person” may mean “everyone” or it may refer to every unmarried person. The two survivors weren’t single – they were married.

Lovers of the English language have come up with labels for just about everything, so it’s no surprise that we have a name for this: A grammatically correct sentence (like that riddle) which can be construed in two or more ways. It’s called amphibology, and now that it’s been pointed out to you, you’ll probably start noticing it every day.

The simplest illustration of amphibology is this: “I like chocolate more than Steve.” This sentence could mean that the speaker likes chocolate more than Steve does, or that the speaker prefers chocolate to Steve. Both interpretations are reasonable; neither strays outside the boundaries of correct grammar. The sentence has to be interpreted based on context and the listener’s knowledge of how likeable Steve is. Of course, this is just a hypothetical example; the world is full of real cases of amphibology which are amusing to consider.

Take this quote from a recent BBC article: “Ms Wang said that she might be willing to speak about what had happened in the future.” The sentence is perfectly correct: Ms. Wang isn’t ready to talk yet, but she may be in the future. But if we take a second look at the sentence, we see a strong implication that Ms. Wang is, in fact, a time traveler, and she is considering discussing the events of the future. And what an exciting article that promises to be!

Candidates studying for the IELTS, a major exam for ESL students hoping to go to overseas universities, encounter the following question in their Cambridge study guides: “What do you think the clothes we wear say about us?” Although it surely isn’t the answer the examiner is looking for, an entirely suitable response would be, “Nothing. Clothes can’t speak.” I personally believe IELTS candidates should score higher for finding the ambiguity.

The word “amphibology” is derived from the Greek word amphibolos, meaning “ambiguous.” For those who love wordplay, stumbling across an amphibological sentence is a great treat. On occasion, however, these peculiar sentences can have very serious ramifications.

In a famous 1953 murder trial in England, amphibology ceased to be a trivial matter and took on vital importance for Bentley, a young man who was on trial for his involvement in a police officer’s murder. Bentley didn’t pull the trigger himself, but when his accomplice was cornered by the ill-fated officer, Bentley was heard to yell, “Let him have it!” Bentley’s defense attorney argued that the now infamous command was intended to mean, “Let him have the gun,” while Crown prosecutors insisted it was an idiomatic instruction to shoot the officer. Both arguments are tenable, but the judge preferred the prosecution’s interpretation, and Bentley was sentenced to death. (His mental health was hotly debated for years, and he was granted a full posthumous pardon in 1998.)

Most of the time, though, the consequences of amphibology are less grave. It’s a popular source of humor. Consider this quote from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 comedy film. Watson, worried that people think he and Holmes are gay, suggests, “We should get married,” by which he means both he and Holmes should marry women. Holmes, interpreting Watson’s suggestion to mean that they should marry one another, replies, “Then they’d really talk!”

The Simpsons often makes clever use of amphibology, as in a 1995 episode in which Marge observes, “Kids can be so cruel.” She means, of course, that children are capable of great cruelty, but Bart deliberately misinterprets her meaning as permission: “We can? Thanks, Mom!” he exclaims, rushing into Lisa’s room to torment her.

As in that last joke, amphibology often results from the vagueness of prepositions. Consider this sentence, which I wrote to have at least four possible interpretations:

“Roger bought a t-shirt with a picture of a duck.”

What does it mean?

  • Roger might have bought a t-shirt which bears a duck’s likeness or;

  • he might have bought a t-shirt using a picture of a duck as currency or;

  • he might have bought a t-shirt and a picture of a duck in one transaction or;

  • he might have simply bought a t-shirt while he was in possession of a picture of a duck.

The preposition “with” has so many possible implications that any one of these interpretations could be inferred. And a whole slew of additional interpretations become possible if you interpret “a picture of a duck” to mean “a picture belonging to a duck”. (I shared this sentence with a friend who loves wordplay, and she actually said, “I’m so amazed that I can hardly speak!” Her reply was a wonderful example of amphibology: She might be unable to speak because she was amazed or she may just be terribly amazed because she can’t speak.)

Finally, let’s return to Sherlock Holmes for one last bizarre example of amphibology. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” an early Holmes adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson describes a client thusly: “He married the daughter of a local brewer, by whom he now has two children.” The reader can decide whether the man has two children by his wife or by his father-in-law; it all depends on how twisted they want “Twisted Lip” to be.

Other examples

  • Teenagers shouldn’t be allowed to drive. It’s getting too dangerous on the streets.
    These sentences could be taken to mean the teenagers will be in danger, or that they will cause the danger.

  • No food is better than our food.
    Implies that ours is best, or that ours is so poor that having none is the better choice.

  • Young men and women.
    Are they both young or just the men?

  • “Stop! We Beat Everybody!”
    Our prices are more competitive than other prices, or we beat up every person.

  • “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”







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The many meanings of one sentence .

Amphibology refers to sentences that can have 2 or more meanings depending on the context or the interpretation a person gives to it. Amphibology is used in riddles, comedy shows, films and books because it leaves the end to the reader/ listener’s interpretation.

Here you can read some examples:

● Young men and women. (Who is young? Just the men or the women as well?)

● We beat everyone. (They beat the competitor’s prices or they are bullies beating-up everyone?)

● Kids can be cruel. (Is it a permission for being cruel or just mentioning the fact that kids are cruel?)

● I shot and elephant in my pajamas (was I wearing my pajamas or was the elephant wearing them?)

In most cases Amphibology is an entertaining for wordplay fans. However, in 1953 a man was hanged after being accused of encouraging his friend to shoot death a police officer by saying “let him have it”. Derek Bentley insisted he meant “let him have the gun” and his partner understood ‘let him have it‘, as a street language for ‘kill him,’ and so he did.

So be careful with the many meanings of a sentence!


 

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The many meanings of one sentence

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