I'm looking for two sentences that have phonological/phonetic ambiguity (like John's feat, and John's feet), but with different syntactic structures. For example, "John's feat was a big deal" and "John's feet was a big deal" doesn't qualify for what I'm looking for because even though they have phonological ambiguity, their syntactic structure is the same.

I can't come up with any...any help would be appreciated! Thanks.

5 Answers 5


Fruit flies like a banana is a famous example.

  • 4
    That's ambiguous in writing, but not necessarily in phonology. The stress pattern will probably differ noticeably (and sufficient to disambiguate) according to whether or not fruit flies is a compound. Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 14:08

This kind of phonological ambiguity is frequent enough, also because sound may be distorted. Actually, it has been considered important enough in speech processing that a specific representational device was created for it. It is the so called "word lattice" used to represent in a compressed way the various sequences of words that could correspond to the phonological sequence, each word corresponding to a subpart of that sequence. Note that the different sequences of word may imply different way of cutting of the string into parts corresponding to words as for example (taken from wikipedia) "a cruise, eh, lass?" and "accrues, hélas!".

Some parsing techniques can directly accomodate word lattices, as they would a word sequence, and either eliminate some variants of the phonological ambiguity because they cannot be made syntactically correct, or treat them as a syntactic ambiguity problem, using whatever means at their disposal for this purpose.

Exercise in phonological ambiguity have been pushed to an extreme with holorime verses. A well known one in French is

Gall, amant de la Reine, alla, tour magnanime!
Galamment de l'Arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes.

You can fin several more at http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vers_holorimes.


Phonological ambiguity is often the result of phonological change. Feet and feat are homonyms in Modern English, but they were pronounced differently in Middle English. The Great Vowel Shift merged both ME long /æ:/ and long /e:/ into Modern English tense /i/, whence /fit/.

So another example of phonological change that changes the syntactic structure -- in fact a recurring prototypical example -- is the Grammaticalization Cycle. This happened in Latin around 0 CE, leading to the Romance languages; and in English a millennium later, after the Norman invasion make English a language spoken by illiterate peasants.

  • 1
    "John has lead soldiers."
    – amI
    Commented Sep 15, 2018 at 6:09

Buhari lost his " site" or " sight. this is an ambiguous statement, because it may be buhar lost site ,means the piece of land or buhsri loose his eyes.

  • structure will be the same here too. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 11:30

passenger: How long will the bus stay at the station?

Conductor: from two to two to two two

Is this is an example of phonological ambiguity?

  • 4
    Can you explain why you think this is an example that fits what the question is looking for?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 12:46
  • @curiousdannii This can alternatively parse as "from two two to two to two" assuming the bus can stop for nearly a full day (or ignoring meaning of time specifications), which is a semantic issue, hence irrelevant here. So there is a phonological ambiguity with different syntactic structures. ---> susan: No upvote though, since you should be giving the answer, not asking a further question (but I did not downvote: you did provide an answer, even though you did not seem to see it).
    – babou
    Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 23:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.