Howling ambiguities

As a lazy Sunday offering, a selection of entries from Denys Parsons’ entertaining book It Must Be True: Classic Newspaper Howlers, Bloomers, and Misprints.

They’re not referenced in detail, unfortunately, but I’m willing to believe they’re all genuine instances of accidental ambiguity. Some can be found elsewhere online.

  1. After using your ointment my face started to clear up at once, and after using two jars it was gone altogether. (Ad in Bristol paper)
  2. Dyke stated in his complaint that the defendant owned a large dog that walked the floor most of the night, held noisy midnight parties, and played the radio so that sleep was impossible. (Australian paper)
  3. Wrap poison bottles in sandpaper and fasten with scotch tape or a rubber band. If there are children in the house, lock them in a small metal box. (Philadelphia Record)
  4. Its lone peal summons the faithful to worship while the others are dismantled and repaired. (Bucks Advertiser)
  5. Mrs. Oscar Maddox is able to be up after being confined to bed for several weeks with malaria fever, to the delight of her friends. (Thomasville (Georgia) Times-Enterprise)
  6. The Nilotic race is remarkable for the disproportionately long legs of its men and women. They extend on the eastern side of the Nile right down into the Ugandan Protectorate. (From a book by Sir Harry H. Johnston)
  7. …and a few moments after the Countess had broken the traditional bottle of champagne on the bows of the noble ship, she slid slowly and gracefully down the slipway, entering the water with scarcely a splash. (Essex paper)
  8. LOST Antique cameo ring, depicting Adam and Eve in Market Square Saturday night. (Ad in Essex paper)
  9. The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece. (short story)
  10. The native inhabitants produce all manner of curios, the great majority of which appear to command a ready sale among the visitors, crude and commonplace as they frequently are. (Bulawayo Chronicle)
  11. When the baby is done drinking it must be unscrewed and laid in a cool place under a tap. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be boiled. (Women’s magazine)
  12. Discovered at 5.06 a.m. the flames starting on the third floor of the Midwest Salvage Co., spread so rapidly that the first firemen on the scene were driven back to safety and leaped across three streets to ignite other buildings. (Cincinnati Times Star)
  13. Princess B__ wore a white and gold lace gown which she’d saved for the occasion. To give you an idea how elaborate it was, the centre-piece was a mirror 13½ feet long with elaborate matching candelabra of fruit-baskets. (Los Angeles Mirror)
  14. From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed. (Motor Cycle)

Many of these ambiguities are anaphoric. Anaphora is something everyone’s familiar with, though they mightn’t know the term. It’s the use of a word or phrase to substitute for an earlier element – the antecedent.

So in #1’s it was gone altogether, it is an anaphor referring back to an unidentified blemish, but technically it could also refer to my face, hence the ambiguity. Here, the absurdist interpretation comes more naturally.

In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, David Crystal says anaphoric reference is a way of “marking the identity between what is being expressed and what has already been expressed”. See the lyrics of Christine Collins’s ‘Linguistics Love Song‘ for a play on it. Cataphora is similar but involves forward reference, e.g., Consider the following.

Grammatical jargon aside, which is your favourite ambiguity here, or do you remember other examples?

28 Responses to Howling ambiguities

  1. Number 3 prompted a big honking laugh from me.

  2. gill francis says:

    A coincidence – I’m writing a post for tomorrow (for Mamillan) and it happens to be about one type of grammatical ambiguity and jokes based on exploiting it, as in ‘Stand upright’ – an instruction on a fire-extinguisher. There’s a good case for teaching English using jokes of this kind – you kill the joke, but the grammatical explanation may work for learners – my main point concerns object ellipsis.I think the post will be titled “Transitivity: is there a funny side?” unless I think of something better. But your quotes are laugh-out-loud – most of them depend on faulty anaphoric devices, as you say, notably personal and relative pronouns.

  3. Irina says:

    I loved the (very!) disproportionately long legs.

    Old blog post of mine about ambiguity here: (most shiny one, originally in Dutch though it works exactly the same in English: advertisement in my parents’ local paper, “Wij zagen alle soorten hout” – “We saw all kinds of wood”.)

  4. Stan says:

    Ashley: Same here, the first time I read it. I’m still giggling at some of them.

    Gill: I think jokes are very useful in ELT. As well as providing fun material for analysis of syntax, ambiguity and so on, the ability to understand jokes in a second language is a great advantage. I’m looking forward to your post. By the way, your “Stand upright” example reminded me: When I was 7 or 8 my teacher told a schoolmate to stand; I thought she said my name, so I stood up too.

    Irina: The long legs were one of my favourites. Thanks for the link – I enjoyed your post a lot. I read it on my laptop, and I read it on a cushion.

  5. Shaun Downey says:

    Wonderful! I see that they treat non believers robustly in Buckinghamshire!

  6. Bridget says:

    The imagery of Charles skating on the mantlepiece says no.9 wins. The mirror embellishment on the princess’ dress was also a good one. All very funny :)

  7. One of my favourites, and one I am sure you’re familiar with, is the great Pears ad, I used your soap two years ago, since when I have used no other

  8. Numbers 3 and 6 are great, but I think my favorite is number 7.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Challenging to select a favourite Stan, though the partying dog and the boiled baby came close!


  10. alexmccrae1546 says:

    All these published “howling ambiguity” examples are pretty hilarious.

    I’m with Irina on No. 6( the disproportionately long legs) as one of the funniest of the lot. For me, it immediately conjured up visions of Gulliver’s Travels, and the Colossus of Rhodes. (A bit of a stretch.)

    No. 1 gives a whole new meaning to the expression, ‘losing face’.

    As a pooch lover, No. 2 tickled my funny-bone, hard. But the reporter seems to have overlooked those raucous dogs-playing-poker parties. Woof!

    Kids in a small box (No. 3) goes far beyond that old-school homily, “Children should be seen and not heard.” (“Honey, they shrunk the kids!”)

    No. 4…. Ouch!!!…. the dismantling and all.

    Re/ Mrs. O. Maddox recovering from her bout with malaria; with friends like THAT, who needs enemies.

    Fun stuff.

  11. John Cowan says:

    I read all of these out loud to my wife. Our laughter escalated slowly, finally hitting the big time at #11 and staying that way through #14 and well afterward.

    The New Yorker uses these errant excerpts to justify its columns (in the typographical sense!) , and calls them, or used to call them, newsbreaks. James Thurber said this one was his favorite. He didn’t say when it was published originally or in the magazine, but it was reprinted in a 1931 collection called Ho Hum: Newsbreaks From The New Yorker (now available used for a cool $40). So I’d guess it dates from the 1920s, when commercial air traffic was still a novelty. The headline was added by E.B. White.

    The Departure of Clara Adams
    (from the Burbank (Cal.) Post)

    Among the first to enter was Mrs. Clara Adams, of Tannersville, Pa., lone woman passenger. Slowly her nose was turned around to face in a southwesterly direction, and away from the hangar doors. Then, like some strange beast, she crawled along the grass.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      Thanks for that ‘beaut’.

      Definitely a “5” on the chuckle scale. (Five being the max.)

      As a denizen of L.A., I trust our local Burbank Post (now, likely long defunct), to come up with that gem of a “newsbreak” faux pas.

      If read literally, as is, I could envision the ‘misappropriated’ Mrs. Adams as a hybridized beastie; perhaps a combo of an anteater of the Argentine pampas (accent on the “nose” reference), and say a lethargic three-toed sloth (wearing a frock, and big hat, of course), who when navigating (crawling) on terra firma would look very awkward, indeed. (Much more at home in the tropical forest canopy, or, surprisingly, swimming* in natural water bodies.)

      I could just picture one of Furber’s signature simple, whimsical cartoons illustrating this one.

      *Sloths are apparently very competent swimmers. They naturally prefer the sloth-paddle, to the dog-paddle, or the Aussie crawl. Just sayin’.

  12. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comments and favourites. Since copying these examples I put the book in storage, and now I’m thinking I should root it out again for a Part II sometime.

    Martyn, that’s a wonderful illustration.

    John, I laughed heartily at the New Yorker example. Thank you.

    Gill, I changed your URL from the Macmillan Dictionary Blog home page to your specific post, so later readers can find it directly.

  13. Karen C says:

    From a book review in The Weekend Australian in (approx) Feb 2011:
    “While writing his magnum opus, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon’s testicles swelled to grotesque size…”

    Followed by a letter from a reader a week later:
    “I didn’t know testicles could write.”

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Clearly, way too much intimate inside info re/ noted historian Gibbon’s distressed ‘private parts’.

      Rumor has it that the zany Monty Python troupe once contemplated a whole sketch routine apropos the sorry state of Gibbon’s ailing gonads… working title: “The Decline and Fall of Edward Gibbon’s Testicles”. ( I kid you not… well I actually do.)

      John Cleese was slated to portray the groinally impaired scribe, naturally working in a modified version of his signature ‘silly walk’
      moves, with a decidedly Gibbonian twist. (Ouch!)

      Oh, and testicles CAN write. But only with a ‘ball’ point pen, of course. (Groan)

  14. Gene Williams says:

    I practically howled throughout. For me, the topper was 13. Princess B– must have made quite an entrance. Sweetening the experience, I was reminded of Irma Prunesquallor in Gormenghast. No anaphasis there, but several minutes of teary-eyed laughter in the description of her party.

  15. Stan says:

    Karen: In this case dangling modifier is almost too vivid a term.

    Gene: The princess’s entrance topped even the countess’s, at #7.

  16. My favourites are definitely 2 and 11. My dogs can be noisy but they certainly aren’t the party animals depicted in #2 – and the visual of unscrewing a baby and putting it under a tap is priceless!

    I also like the idea of growing more beautiful as I travel, so I will definitely plan a trip to the valley of the Ithon.

    • Stan says:

      Suzanne: The visuals they suggest are irresistible! I wonder if the valley of Ithon saw an increase in beautiful motorcyclists after the magazine was published…

  17. […] news items, a biography of H. Paul Grice, and a glossary of linguistics under ‘A’ (including anaphora, happily). I’ve only browsed it so far, but I’ll be reading it from cover to cover this […]

  18. Lisa says:

    Having worked in Sudan with one of the Nilotic people groups, I found #6 especially funny. They do have long legs, but I never saw any that long. Thanks for the laugh, and for more examples to share with my students.

  19. Stan says:

    My pleasure, Lisa. #6 is a surreal delight.

  20. […] For more like this (I mean the funny parts), see my older post on ‘howling ambiguities.’ […]

  21. […] Here’s a funny article about the value of a GOOD proofreader and an amusing blog post about “howling ambiguities” […]

  22. […] Modifiers can make mischief by dangling at the end of a sentence too. Here’s a line borrowed from an earlier post on anaphoric ambiguity: […]

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