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Potentially Controversial Observation Re: Buffalo Sentence

Filed under: The Squib Report

Martin Schneider writes:

Has anyone entertained the notion that perhaps "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is not a valid English sentence?

If you are not aware of what I'm talking about, by all means head over to Wikipedia and catch up, it's a marvel.

(Very quickly, because these things get complicated, if you imagine a (purely optional) comma after the fifth "buffalo," you might glimpse a valid sentence that means something like, "Those NY-state bison that NY-state bison often bully, they also bully NY-state bison.")

As far as I know, I believe that anyone who is able to follow the grammar of the sentence accepts the premise that the sentence is valid. That is to say, the set of people who deny its validity is congruent to the set of people who don't get it. Seeing the argument for its validity is the same thing as accepting its validity.

I'm wondering if that's really the case. Maybe you can see why it works, but also deny that it counts as a valid sentence. I'm going to throw it out there.

Before we continue, I must invoke the classic sentence devised by Noam Chomsky, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," which serves to establish that a sentence can be grammatical while having a nonsensical semantic meaning (these words are cribbed directly from the Wikipedia entry on the sentence). I think I'm arguing that "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" might be a grammatical sentence without a valid semantic meaning—if that matters. I'm not sure it does matter, but it might.

In my "comprehensible" rendering of the sentence in the parenthetical above, I'm concerned about the insertion of the word "also," which is, I think, conceptually necessary to make the sentence work, but also threatens the sentence's validity. Can a purely tautological sentence be said to be valid?

The trouble is that the activities and entities involved are congruent. So the group of "buffalo from Buffalo" who buffalo "buffalo from Buffalo"—what is it they do, now? Oh yes. They buffalo "buffalo from Buffalo."

But no: in order to avoid pure tautology, they do not merely "do that." They also "do that." It's always phrased that way in the rendering, they "also" buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

As evidence, citing the Wikipedia page, here are two more ways to explain the sentence:

Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.

THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo.

Note that both examples take pains to include the word "also." But you can't "also" move from one activity to the same activity. Can you? Let's see if it holds up in a different context:

My hamster, who enjoys lettuce, also enjoys lettuce.

Is that a valid sentence? I think it's not clear.

Moving on. There's a related problem, which is the absolute congruity of the groups "Buffalo buffalo." I don't really know if that set of animals truly can be said to bully ... itself.

The sentence works if you think of it as describing a situation in which some Buffalo buffalo do something to some other Buffalo buffalo, as in the first example just cited: "Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community" (emphasis mine). I'm just not sure that that's what the words mean. Let's try a test case:

New Yorkers root for New Yorkers, who in return root for New Yorkers.

Is there really a distinct subject and object there? I'm not sure there is. Is that describing two actions, or one action twice?

Now: it's possible that the sentence means both things. It means something without semantic coherence, along the lines of my "New Yorkers" example, while also meaning something closer to "some buffalo do things to other buffalo." Because humans and their brains are complicated and can read identical sentences with varying precision.

And maybe that ambiguity is all one requires to give the sentence semantic heft.

Thank you.


I think you’re right; the “Buffalo” sentence, while grammatically correct and (potentially) conveying meaning, doesn’t actually mean anything at all, except from a whimsical point of view — a point of view, I should add, to which I’m usually sympathetic.

Perhaps philosophers and linguistics experts (to the extent there’s a difference) are partial to whimsy. I recall my roommate in grad school sharing with me a syllogism from one of his Philosophy courses: (1) “Nobody loves me but my baby;” (2) “My baby loves no one but me;” therefore, (3) “I am my baby.” Somehow, the result was logically inescapable; I can never remember how.

I did a few searches, and I was a little surprised not to find much pushback on the sentence of the kind I present; I figured the madmen at LanguageLog would have filibustered about it somewhere. No such luck.

I just happened to be looking at the Wikipedia entry and latched on to the word “also,” and then couldn’t shake it.

Hi Martin—Great article, and a daring argument, but we demur:


You’re certainly right that the sentence is awkward, confusing, improbable—but Rapaport wouldn’t deny any of these things; he only meant to show that it was technically valid. And on that we have to agree. See if you buy our counterargument…


The Abbeville Manual of Style

Great post! I think you’re right on some things, and in fact made me see something I didn’t realize. Response forthcoming….

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