“Surely that’s a typo,” you think, squinting at the eight buffalo mentioned above. Or if not a typo, it’s got to be some kind of editorial joke, because how can “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” be a complete sentence? It is — it just takes some careful reading (and a little grammatical know-how).
To decipher “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo,” you have to understand that buffalo has three meanings, each with its own part of speech, making it a homonym.
The three meanings of buffalo are:
- buffalo (irregular plural noun) - big hairy oxen with horns
- Buffalo (proper adjective) - someone from Buffalo, a city in New York
- buffalo (transitive verb) - to bother or bully
Like every complete sentence, this one has a subject and a verb (believe it or not). Now it’s a matter of identifying each usage of buffalo.
- Common nouns bolded - Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
- Proper adjectives underlined - Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
- Verbs italicized - Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
So now we have “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” But is that grammatically correct?
Like nearly every other sentence in the English language, this one makes more sense when you add punctuation. A relative pronoun (whom) also doesn’t hurt. Try reading it like this:
- Buffalo buffalo, (whom) Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
The subject of the sentence ("Buffalo buffalo") is followed by an adjective clause ("whom Buffalo buffalo buffalo"), and then the predicate ("buffalo Buffalo buffalo").
Got it yet? If not, here it is broken down even further:
- Buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who are bothered by buffalo from Buffalo, New York, also bother buffalo from Buffalo, New York.
And there you go. Once you’ve got it mastered, try out this unique sentence on the language lovers in your life and see how long it takes them to solve it. (Be prepared to define “adjective clause” to them.)
At its core, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” teaches us all a valuable lesson: You shouldn’t bother others just because others bother you. Also, proper grammar is a lot more important than you ever thought (unless you’re a fellow grammar geek, in which case, you already knew that).
But even though the sentence is technically correct, it’s certainly not practical for a number of reasons: There are no buffalo in Buffalo (those are North American bison, and there aren’t any of those there either, unless you count the bison exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo). While buffalo is an acceptable plural form of buffalo, the proper plural form is buffalos (or buffaloes). And of course, people who come from Buffalo generally prefer the term Buffalonians as opposed to Buffalo. But “Buffalonian bison Buffalonian bison buffalo buffalo Buffalonian bison” just doesn’t have the same grammatical je ne sais quoi.
“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is the most famous example of a homonym creating its own complete sentence. However, any English word that can function as three parts of speech can do the same thing, including the word fish: It’s an animal, a place (Fish, Georgia), and a transitive verb (to fish different aquatic animals). Use the buffalo formula to try it for yourself:
- Original: Fish fish Fish fish fish fish Fish fish.
- Translation: Fish from Fish, Georgia, who are fished by fish from Fish, Georgia, also fish fish from Fish, Georgia.
Feeling a bit buffaloed after that grammatical adventure? If so, explore these common mistakes to avoid upsetting the grammar geeks in your life: