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Police buffalo fish: the grammar of gibberish

John Murray

Since English has so many words that can take several lexical categories (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), it is actually possible to create grammatically correct and potentially meaningful sentences just by repeating the same word two or more times.

For example, the word ‘fish’ can refer to both  the sea-based animal and the act of fishing, so if fish were to learn how to fish, you could describe their action by saying:

“Fish fish.”

Then, what if fish started catching other fish? You could say;

“Fish fish fish.”

That’s a straightforward subject-verb-object sentence, and we can carry this a little bit further if we take advantage of proper nouns; particularly in popular music:

“Talk Talk talk Talk Talk Talk” – (the 1980s band Talk Talk discuss the 1981 album ‘Talk Talk Talk’ by the Psychedelic Furs).

“Wet Wet Wet wet Wet Wet Wet” – (Scottish band Wet Wet Wet take part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, perhaps).

You could argue that bands should be referred to as single entities, so it should really be “Talk Talk talks” and “Wet Wet Wet wets”. Few music writers observe this rule, however, and the same is true for sports teams.

A well-known example of making a sentence out of just one word is the following:

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

Come on, how can that be a sentence? Well, it could be if you understand the three meanings of the word ‘buffalo’ used, including the capitalised one.

– a place in the state of New York (in this case, it functions as an adjective meaning ‘from Buffalo’)
– the plural noun for the American bison
– a verb meaning to bully or intimidate

Therefore, the first five ‘buffaloes’ are a noun phrase meaning ‘the bison from Buffalo that are bullied by other bison from Buffalo’, the sixth is the verb meaning ‘to bully’ and the last two mean ‘bison from Buffalo’. It’s still just a subject-verb-object sentence indicating that pretty much all the bison in Buffalo bully each other.

It works with the word ‘police’ too, when you consider that Police is a town in Poland, albeit pronounced differently:

“Police police Police police police police Police police.”

I think we can therefore go one word better than these if we develop our Wet Wet Wet example. If you wanted to explain that the band were already wet beforehand, you could call them “wet Wet Wet Wet”, thus:

“Wet Wet Wet Wet wet wet Wet Wet Wet.”

It’s not a sentence you’re ever likely to say, but it does make sense and shows the complexity and confusion possible in our language without clear communication.

So, if you write, make right sure you write right!

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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