Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo, You Know?

A number of my students, both current and former, have been bringing up a seemingly nonsensical sentence: 

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

This is not a new sentence, and has in fact been around for maybe as much as fifty years; with fans of the English language and its many oddities, it is quite famous. It is, however, a goofy one, and hearing it for the first time generally results in confusion. The sentence relies on three definitions of buffalo:

  1. the city Buffalo, New York (these are the capitalized use)

  2. the plural form for the animal also known as a bison.

  3. the verb, which is a synonym to bully.


With some changes made for clarity, this sentence means:

Bison from Buffalo, New York, who bison from the city of Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo.

This sentence relies on some English forms that explain the lack of commas or relative pronouns (such as "that," "who," or "which), which adds to the confusion. You could, theoretically, add as many variants of buffalo as you wanted without punctuation and the sentence would be grammatically correct, although I wouldn't want the task of making sense of it. 

While I was looking up some history on this sentence, I actually ran into a type of English oddity that I have never heard of, called the Garden Path Sentence. These are sentences that lead to confusion because they trick the reader, often by using words that have a verb and a noun form (like the buffalo example) paired with words that have an adjectival form and a noun form). When a person reads the sentence, they are led to expect the subject of the sentence is one thing, but the resulting sentence doesn't make sense! I'll expand on this in the near future, but I thought I would leave you with a few examples.

  • The old man the boat.

  • Some crazy bed a long time.

  • The dog walked up the path barked.

  • The horse raced past the barn fell.

(Originally Published Feb 22, 2016)