I came across this headline in the Wall Street Journal:
Republicans Grill IRS Chief Over Lost Emails
This type of sentence has great possibilities because of its two different interpretations:
- Republicans harshly question the chief about the emails
- Republicans cook the chief using email as the fuel
It’s a perfect tool to: demonstrate careful reading, showcase the need for editing, and encourage creativity and divergent thinking.
Even More Meanings
The ambiguous headline took me back to my college days when a professor shared this sentence:
I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.
It seems like a simple statement until you begin to unpack the many alternate meanings:
- There’s a man on a hill, and I’m watching him with my telescope.
- There’s a man on a hill, who I’m seeing, and he has a telescope.
- There’s a man, and he’s on a hill that also has a telescope on it.
- I’m on a hill, and I saw a man using a telescope.
- There’s a man on a hill, and I’m sawing him with a telescope.
See how many meanings your students can catch!
Here are some other ambiguous sentences (more at this Wikipedia page):
We saw her duck.
- We looked at a duck that belonged to her.
- We looked at her quickly squat down to avoid something.
- We use a saw to cut her duck.
He fed her cat food.
- He fed a woman’s cat some food.
- He fed a woman some food that was intended for cats.
- He somehow encouraged some cat food to eat something.
Look at the dog with one eye.
- Look at the dog using only one of your eyes.
- Look at the dog that only has one eye.
- Updated (via Alice, age 7): Perhaps the dog has found an eye somewhere, and we’re looking at the dog.
I could definitely see these as a daily challenge to uncover as many meanings as possible. And illustrations would be wonderful!
Include A Classic
Update 10/27/2015: Replaced the broken YouTube video
I’m always on the lookout for a way to connect great ideas from the past to a typical lesson. Groucho Marx is a king of these linguistic jokes, with his most famous being this quick quip about an elephant:
Your kids may have seen “that guy” before, but probably haven’t experienced the Marx Brothers humor in action, which is still remarkably funny.
Challenging Parts of Speech
These sentences are also a great connection to wordplay, puns, and parts of speech. I’ve written before about “edge cases,” those really special examples that push students to truly understand the material. Your kids can try to identify parts of speech in sentences with multiple uses of a single word, with the ultimate example being:
Will Will will the will to Will?
Create Your Own
Of course, there will be a group of students who want to create their own cleverly ambiguous sentences. Have them look closely at the patterns in the examples you give. The key is to build the sentences around homographs and homonyms, words that look the same but have different meanings.
Let me know what your kids come up with firstname.lastname@example.org or @IanAByrd! But, psst, don’t email me asking me to do your homework.
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