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You can eat waffles or you can waffle on what to eat

Language ambiguity can certainly create some confusing situations.

Take this headline from a 1982 issue of The Guardian, for example: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.”

At first, it sounds like the British forgot their breakfast on the Falkland Islands. While we love waffles and certainly agree that accidentally leaving them behind in the South Atlantic would be a bummer, that’s not exactly headline material.

Go back and read the headline again. This time, treat “waffles” as a verb instead of a delicious breakfast treat.

Now does it make sense?

Once we remember that “waffle” can also mean “to fail to make up one’s mind” we realize the headline was trying to say that left wing political parties couldn’t decide what to do during the Falkland Islands war.

Let’s try another one: “The man who hunts ducks out occasionally.”

No, we’re not talking about a man who occasionally rustles ducks out from behind bushes or out of caves or wherever. Not that that makes any sense anyway.

Trust us, the sentence works, but it’s going to take some brain flexing on your part before it makes sense.

Your brain really wants to make “the man who hunts ducks” the sentence’s subject.  After that, it wants to know what the man who hunts ducks is doing, so it looks for a verb.

Here’s where it falls apart. Your brain is expecting a verb, but instead, the next word is “out.” At that point, your brain says, “Nope” and hightails it out of there.

Look at the sentence again, but this time make “ducks out” the verb phrase. Now we’re talking about a man who hunts and also occasionally takes off or “ducks out.”

Here’s one more: “The horse raced past the barn fell.”

We'll have the answer on next week's show. If you figure it out before then, let us know at acurzan@umich.edu or rkruth@umich.edu.  

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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