Rod Hilton's rants about software development, technology, and sometimes Star Wars

Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

Back in college, I remember having a discussion with a fellow Computer Science student about the word Buffalo, and how it could be used to form an infinitely long sentence. Somewhat recently, I mentioned this to some co-workers, who thought I was a stupid crazy person. While it is easy to prove this true, very often a mathematical proof isn’t enough to convince a normal human being (which is humorous, since the straightforward explanation that DOES tend to convince them is far less rigorous than the proof).

I shall attempt to explain this oddity of the English language here. First, let’s start with something simple. A sentence is valid if it consists of a subject followed by a verb, as long as that verb does not require a direct object. For example “Fish swim.” is a valid sentence.

Seems simple so far. Let’s come back to that. We also know that we can write a sentence such as “I don’t like dogs that people love.” Indeed, I can say “I don’t like…” and follow that with any noun or noun phrase.

We also can write “dogs that people love” without the superfluous “that”: “dogs people love”. So I don’t like dogs people love. Clearly dogs people love is a valid noun phrase. A “dog someone loves” is a single subject. So it would also be valid to say “dogs people love bark.” Here I am simply saying that dogs, specifically dogs that people love, tend to bark. Nothing wrong here.

Now let’s make things a big more complicated. Let’s say rather than talking about dogs, people, and love, we’re talking only about people. In the same way that “dogs that people love” can be written as “dogs people love”, we can refer to “people that other people slap” as “people people slap.” That’s a valid subject of a sentence. And a sentence can be merely a subject followed by a verb, so how about: “People people slap scream.” Here I’m simply saying that people (who other people slap) tend to scream.

Well what if, rather than scream, they themselves also slap? People people slap slap. Fun sentence, eh? So if we can refer to “people [subject] slap” as a subject itself in another sentence, then that means the [subject] there can, in fact, be “people people slap”. This means that “People people people slap slap slap.” is also a valid sentence. This is saying that there are people which people slap. They are the subject of another sentence, in which they slap people who, themselves, slap. You can see how I can come up with an infinitely long sentence here.

Well, it so happens that Buffalo is a plural noun, referring to the animal. But it also is a verb, meaning to trick. So if we replace “people” with buffalo the noun and “slap” with buffalo the verb, I can say “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.” As long as there are an even number of “buffalo”, the sentence is fine. But what if it’s odd? Then it’s just a subject without the last verb, making it not a sentence. That’s easy. Now the last buffalo is the direct object of the verb “buffalo”. Rather than simply saying that Buffalo (the noun) buffalo (the verb), you say that Buffalo (the noun) buffalo (the verb) other buffalo (direct object). So the last buffalo in an odd-numbered string is the buffalo being buffaloed by the subject defined in the rest of the sentence.

Alternatively, you could say that the first Buffalo is an adjective describing the first buffalo mentioned. Like Buffalo residents describe people from Buffalo, Buffalo buffalo describe buffalo from Buffalo.

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

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