Day 403: Sentences From The Depths Of Hell

originally published February 6, 2013

As a writer, I have learned to love words. Specifically, I have learned to make sweet, sweet love to them in kinky and unfathomable ways that would make the Internet itself shut down and tell to join a support group. So when language straps on some weirdness of its own, dims the lights and tells me it wants to get a little funky, I’ll gladly lock the door, pick a safe-word and dive on in. This is one of those days.

The cluster of linguistic titillation on today’s menu is the following sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Whew! I’m glad I took one of those little blue pills so I can last this entire article. The above sentence makes perfect grammatical sense; all you have to do is bend it around your brain until you find the right shape to make it fit. William J. Rappaport, an associate professor at the University of (you guess it) Buffalo is credited for coming up with this sentence back in 1992.

By the way, Rappaport’s wife is the lady who bought Lucille Ball’s childhood home. That has nothing to do with anything, but I am forever the bitch of meaningless trivia.

To make sense of this herd of buffalo, you first have to differentiate between its three forms:

  • Buffalo (adjective), as in the city of Buffalo, New York. Not technically an adjective, but in this sentence it is only used to modify a noun so we’ll cheat.
  • buffalo (noun), as in the big smelly animal.
  • buffalo (verb), which means “to bully”. Not the most common use of the word, but it’s legit, I checked.

(buffalo wings play no part in this sentence)

The rule that allows this sentence to work is none other than that of reduced relative clauses – basically the ability to string together clauses that should have the word ‘that’ between them, but don’t. Here’s how it should read:

Buffalo buffalo (as in animals whose hometown is Buffalo, NY) [that] Buffalo buffalo buffalo (you know, the ones that buffalo from Buffalo bully) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (tend to bully buffalo from the city of Buffalo).

To make this a little less cerebrally painful I’ll re-state the sentence, substituting ‘Yonkers’ for the city of Buffalo, ‘kids’ for the animal, and ‘bully’ for the verb:

Yonkers kids [that] Yonkers kids bully bully Yonkers kids.

It is completely grammatically acceptable to drop the ‘that’ from the above sentence and still walk away with only a tiny headache.

You can also – if you haven’t already smacked your computer in disgust – substitute the word ‘Police’ into that sentence. If you allow for the term ‘Police-police’ to refer to the Internal Affairs Department (those stereotypically hated guys on all the cop shows who investigate police wrong-doing), then the sentence looks like this:

Police-police Police-police police police Police-police.

Or, the IAD guys that the IAD guys police (check for rule infractions), also police the IAD guys.

It’s all so simple.

(Officer Dave says, “Hey, fucking enough already!”)

The buffalo sentence is correct, but could use a seriously crisp splash of clarity. For a sentence that can only exist with a complete disregard of punctuation (thus condemning you to an increasingly wide swath of Hell where punctuation-sinners shall be banished), try out this one:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.

This one can best be explained through imagining the situation in which it would occur. You have two kids, James and John. Maybe James is a little bit taller than John. That doesn’t matter. The teacher has given them an English test, and in the course of writing, they have to describe a guy who – at some point in the past – had a cold. John writes, “The man had a cold.” The teacher marks this wrong. James, who has a little more going on upstairs, writes, “The man had had a cold.” This is the past-perfect tense, and in this case it would be correct.

One can’t really substitute other words to make this sentence clear. However I’ll toss in some punctuation, and italicize the ‘had’ that creates the past-perfect tense (the first part of ‘The man had had a cold’) just to make it easier to read:

James, while John had had “had”, had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.

So the sentence about past-perfect tense is also written in past-perfect tense, and somehow that damn teacher is smiling. Bitch!

Had enough yet? Me too! But we’ve still got 250 words to fill, so let’s torture ourselves with another shrew-sentence:

That that is is that that is not is not that that is not is not that that is is that not it it is.

This is another word cluster that is starving for punctuation. If you can sprinkle in the correct dots and squiggles then congratulations, you get to leave early for recess.

This one boils down to a philosophical statement, Parmenides-style. A form of it popped up in “Flowers For Algernon”. All it says is that things which exist, exist. Things which do not exist, do not exist. Don’t get them mixed up. Or, to put it monosyllabically:

That that is, is. That that is not, is not. That that is not is not that that is. Is that not it? It is.

It certainly is.

Here are a few more to stomp their boot-heels into your brain:

Will Will will the will to Will?

Of course this is asking, “Will Will (some guy) will (as in, bequeath) the will (the legal document) to Will? (some other guy with the same name)”

This next one makes fairly good linguistic sense on paper, if you assume a girl was standing up to put pink-colored fish eggs on the straight-line planting of her flower garden:

Rose rose to put rose roes on her rows of roses.

Lastly, and this is actually a legitimate sentence, probably spoken by nobody:

“Wouldn’t the sentence ‘I want you to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign’ have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and in between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?”

To whomever came up with that one, I offer a simpler sentence.

Fuck off.

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