Of bisons and riddles

A book I own contains the following fully grammatical sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

 My friend Susan was the only one who immediately asked, “Where’s the verb?”  One of my students reacted the way I did when I first saw the sentence: “Why do you have 8 buffaloes in a row?” 

Think equivocation and focus on the verb(s).  The sentence follows the following pattern:

Dogs dogs bite bite dogs.

What’s the translation?  How did you reach it?  Did you get mad?  Why or why not?


6 thoughts on “Of bisons and riddles

  1. “A book I own contains the following passage.”
    The finite verbs in the above sentence are “(I) own” and “(A book) contains.” Two finite verbs means you have two clauses – what is the logical relationship between them?

    “A book…contains the following passage.”
    Which book?
    Oh – “(the one that) I own.” This relative clause modifies the subject of the main clause.

    You have a similar structure in the buffalo sentence.

  2. I’ve been working on this for days, and I never want to see the damn word “buffalo” again. The very sound of it now makes my skin crawl. I also never knew it could be a verb.

    The big question for me was whether the first Buffalo was a proper name or not. You can’t tell based on the capitalization, because it would be capitalized either way. I take it as the city.


    Buffalo buffalo (the buffalo who live in Buffalo)
    [whom] Buffalo buffalo buffalo
    buffalo (main verb)
    Buffalo buffalo. (Direct object.)

    I.e.: Buffalo who live in Buffalo, whom buffalo living in Buffalo buffalo, buffalo buffalo who live in Buffalo.

    And if that makes no sense, don’t buffalo me about it.

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