Explaining the Buffalo Sentence

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Maybe you’ve seen it as an illustration of the wackiness of English:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

That is a grammatically correct English sentence. Now, I’m pretty good at this English grammar thing, but it took me quite a while to understand exactly how this series of buffaloes could possibly express a genuine grammatical thought. But eventually I figured it out. And now I’m here to help you. Read on — this is sure to make you a hit at parties.

First, understand the different uses of the word buffalo.

Buffalo, the Noun.

Of course it’s a noun. That’s the most obvious. It’s the big animal once hunted by plains Indians. Be aware that there are two acceptable plural forms of buffalo: buffaloes and buffalo. All the noun uses in this sentence are plural.

Buffalo, the Proper Adjective

Buffalo is also the name of a city in New York. A dentist from that city might be referred to as a Buffalo dentist. And, of course, a buffalo from Buffalo would be known as a Buffalo buffalo. That’s a key piece of this puzzle. Notice that this use of buffalo requires capitalization.

Buffalo, the Verb

To buffalo means to overawe or intimidate. A pushy salesman might buffalo you into buying encyclopedias you don’t really need.

Color Coding

To help you understand the different buffaloes used in this sentence, I’ll put the noun buffaloes in red, the adjective buffaloes in blue, and the verb buffaloes in green:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Get it now? Okay, maybe not.

Parsing the Sentence

Let’s try breaking it down into grammatical parts.

First, every time you see the capitalized Buffalo, it’s an adjective modifying the ensuing noun. Three times this sentence refers to Buffalo buffalo, which means a buffalo from Buffalo.

The first Buffalo buffalo is the subject of the sentence. Following that is a relative clause that modifies the subject: Which Buffalo buffalo? The Buffalo buffalo that Buffalo buffalo buffalo. In fact, you could insert the relative pronoun that to make it clearer:

Buffalo buffalo that Buffalo buffalo buffalo…

The next buffalo is the simple predicate or main verb. It’s what the original Buffalo buffalo do. They buffalo.

The final Buffalo buffalo pairing is the direct object of the word buffalo. It’s what the Buffalo buffalo buffalo. They buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Clear as mud, right?

Rewording the Whole Thing

If you are still lost, don’t worry. It will all make sense here. I just thought I’d drag it out a bit.

Here’s what the sentence is saying, replacing the verb buffalo with the verb bamboozle and adding several other clarifying words.

Buffalo from Buffalo that other buffalo from Buffalo bamboozle, bamboozle still other buffalo from Buffalo.

It’s a nonsense sentence of course. No one is suggesting that it is a reasonable statement. Just that it is grammatically sound.

Now, replace buffalo from Buffalo with Buffalo buffalo:

Buffalo buffalo that other Buffalo buffalo bamboozle, bamboozle other Buffalo buffalo.

Now get rid of the clarifying but unnecessary words that and other:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo bamboozle, bamboozle Buffalo buffalo.

Finally, replace bamboozle with the verb buffalo.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The comma helps and should probably be inserted all the time, but that just makes it too easy!

One more thing to help you if you are still confused. The sentence is in the same grammatical form as this one:

Alaskan people Alaskan people love, love Alaskan people.

That’s the best I can do. I hope somewhere in this discussion it came into focus for you!

*****

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. ks khong
    ks khong04-28-2016

    Just came across this blog. We have a similar one in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien which goes like this “Gong Gong Gong gong gong gong Gong Gong Gong”.

    Translate:
    Gong Gong Gong (Grandfather Gong) gong (said) gong (tin can) gong (knocked) Gong Gong Gong (Grandfather Gong)

  2. Sue
    Sue11-13-2014

    Still trying to figure it out! LOL!
    I may put it on my subject and predicate quiz tomorrow for extra credit! LOL!

  3. Jacki Mohap
    Jacki Mohap02-27-2014

    The fact that I got it somewhere in the middle, just goes to show how well you explain things, Brian! Always look forward to your posts, and they even make me slightly wish I were teaching writing again 🙂 Hope everyone is doing well!!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-27-2014

      Thanks, Jacki! Haven’t seen you in forever. All the Waskos are well. 🙂

  4. jacki
    jacki02-09-2014

    Finally got it! Thanks for breaking it down. What helped me was to replace the first Buffalo with Country and the second proper adjective Buffalo with City so it reads “Country buffalo city buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”
    I do hope I never come across this sentence again. LoL

  5. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz02-05-2014

    My wife’s from Buffalo, so I was determined to understand that sentence.

  6. Will Egan
    Will Egan02-05-2014

    Another sentence like this: “James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.”
    With punctuation, it becomes:
    “James, while John had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-05-2014

      I’m going to have to read that a few times. Slowly. 🙂

  7. Sandy
    Sandy02-05-2014

    Wow! That was some Rosetta Stone quality code cracking there! Sending this to all my word pals.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-05-2014

      Excellent. It’s good to know people even have “word pals.” 🙂

  8. Rachel
    Rachel02-03-2014

    Fantastic!

  9. Clubbeaux
    Clubbeaux01-31-2014

    Thanks Brian, great post.

  10. Lauren
    Lauren01-31-2014

    This will be part of next week’s lesson for my English I class!! Fun!!

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