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Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

Have you ever struggled to figure out the "buffalo buffalo buffalo" sentence and given up? I have, but today I decided to take the time to figure it out. Here's what it means.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
February 12, 2015

buffalo buffalo buffalo

I’ve always been annoyed by the buffalo sentence. You probably know the one I mean. It has eight buffalos in a row and is actually a real sentence that means something:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Today, I decided to wrestle it to the ground and figure out what it means once and for all.

It uses three different meanings of the word buffalo.

  1. The name of a city in New York. We should visit Buffalo next week.
  2. The plural noun that describes a herd of animals of the Bison genus. I saw eight buffalo on the prairie.
  3. The verb that means "to fool, trick, or bamboozle.” I’m pretty sure I can buffalo John into thinking we were at the conference.

We can substitute those three meanings of buffalo to make the sentence understandable, but the thing that helped me understand it the most was a sentence diagram. 

buffalo buffalo buffalo sentence diagram

Here’s why the sentence diagram helped:

First, you can look at the simplest form of the sentence without all the modifiers and the restrictive clause—just subject-verb-object.

That gives you Buffalo buffalo buffalo, or Bison trick bison.

Then you add the modifiers that tell you where the bison are from: They are bison from the city of Buffalo. 

That gives you Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo, or Buffalo bison trick Buffalo bison.

Finally, you add the trickiest part—a restrictive clause in the middle that tells you the first group of New York bison are themselves tricked by bison from the same town. 

Let’s go halfway there first:

Buffalo bison New York bison trick trick Buffalo bison.

Here’s an expanded version:

New York bison [that are] tricked [by other] New York bison [also themselves] trick [other] New York bison. 

Buffalo buffalo (bison from New York) Buffalo buffalo buffalo (that New York bison trick) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (trick New York bison).

The next time someone acts superior and asks if you know what the buffalo sentence means, just say, “Sure. Grammar Girl has me covered.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.