Tiny changes in sentences that create huge changes in meaning
April 24, 2013 10:22 AM   Subscribe

What are very small changes in the sound of a sentence which completely alter the meaning?

As an example, yesterday, I said that my new cat "hat angst von vögeln". I meant to say, "hat angst von vögel", "is afraid of birds", but instead said, with admittedly poor grammar, that he "is afraid of fucking".

What I'm curious about are other sentences where a single small change like that, one easy difference in sounds, completely alters what is being said.
posted by frimble to Writing & Language (72 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
"Wife not getting any better, come home soon," versus, "Wife not getting any, better come home soon."
posted by musofire at 10:27 AM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am remembering this imperfectly because it was a bit of schtick in a play I worked on once - but apparently the Mandarin Chinese phrase for "Welcome to the United States" sounds very similar to "Insects come to America."

And an old roommate did a standup routine once, and one of her jokes was about how if you try to wish someone "Happy New Year" in Spanish and you get one of the sounds wrong, it comes out as "Happy new rectum".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

"HOW did you DO this?" vs. "How did YOU do THIS?"
posted by steveminutillo at 10:27 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The pen is mightier than the sword vs. The penis mightier than the sword

(Also used as a really good argument for proofreading).
posted by Mchelly at 10:29 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of sentence pairs involving vowels — "I lost my cat" vs. "I leased my coat" etc.
posted by gubo at 10:29 AM on April 24, 2013

For written changes: Eats, shoots and leaves.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:30 AM on April 24, 2013

Related: spoonerism.
posted by googly at 10:30 AM on April 24, 2013

Pauses are very important. Check out I Wanna Kiss Her ... But ... she won't let me.

Also, check out the orphan/often sequence in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance". (Can't find a link at the moment.) Of course, the two words are much closer in pronunciation if said with a British accent.
posted by Melismata at 10:31 AM on April 24, 2013

This could happen in innumerable sentences. However, some general trends that I find trip up native speakers of English:

* in Japanese, vowel length is crucial to the pronunciation and meaning of words. For example, "komon" is assistant but "koumon" is anus. Be careful if you are saying that you are someone's assistant. Similarly, "shojo" can mean "female virgin", "young girl", or "orangutan", depending on how long the vowels are held.

* in Mandarin, 鞋子 and 蝎子 are both pronounced "xiezi" but with different tones on the first syllable. If you tell someone about the xiezi in your closet, their reaction will depend on your attention to proper intonation.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:34 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Please help my Uncle Jack off the horse.

Do you really need my help with the other version?
posted by Dolley at 10:36 AM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Eats, shoots and leaves.

I highly recommend that book for matter such as this.
posted by It is better for you not to know. at 10:37 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Come On People
posted by payoto at 10:37 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find I often mistype "now" for "not" and vice versa, usually reversing the meaning.

"We are [now/not] accepting that file type."
posted by Chrysostom at 10:41 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Let's eat, Grandma.
Let's eat Grandma.
posted by thatone at 10:44 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The MeFi discussion about the Boston bombings (warning: huge) is currently discussing how the use of quote marks around words change their intended meanings.
posted by headnsouth at 10:45 AM on April 24, 2013

"That's subjective." "and "That's objective." can sound nearly identical if you don't put any space between the words, and they mean about the opposite of each other.
posted by mean square error at 10:49 AM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

In Hindi, leaving out the aspirated part of a consonant can completely change the word. I'm a bit rusty so this maybe inaccurate, but I think "kana" means "lunch" and "khana" means "one-eyed person".
posted by Specklet at 10:53 AM on April 24, 2013

The omission of a comma and lack of capitalization changed this sentiment into something rather drastically different from what the writer intended.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:58 AM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Similar to Chrysostom's suggestion, "The enemy is nowhere" vs. "The enemy is now here". I use this example when I teach cryptography.
posted by El_Marto at 10:59 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, the traditional double-edged statements for recommending lousy candidates, including:

"I cannot recommend this person too highly."

"Nobody could have done a better job."

In these cases it's all about the tone of voice.
posted by musofire at 11:01 AM on April 24, 2013

"Yeah, right" can indicate agreement or, if said with the proper sarcastic tone, disagreement.
posted by janey47 at 11:02 AM on April 24, 2013

These are really easy in Mandarin. The whole language is an experiment in just how much a small set of sounds can be overloaded with meaning without breaking down in context.

On a field trip, a classmate of mine wanted to ask our teacher and guide, a dignified older lady, about the schedule for the ferry boat to our next destination. 我们几点上船?wǒmen jǐ diǎn shàng chuán? What time do we get on the boat?

What he actually asked was: 我们几点上床?wǒmen jǐ diǎn shàng chuáng?

Which means "what time do we go to bed (together)?"
posted by zjacreman at 11:02 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine, American, reports that she went to a market in Mexico. An old woman was selling vegetables, and my friend asked how much for the garlic. The woman looked puzzled, so my friend repeated her question, speaking more loudly. The woman looked more puzzled. My friend repeated herself several more times, speaking more loudly and gesturing. She really wanted some garlic! Then she realized she'd gotten one consonant wrong in her question.

Instead of asking, "cuánto es su ajo?" (how much is your garlic?) she had been asking "cuánto es su ano?" (how much is your anus?).

At that point she gave up on getting some of the old lady's garlic and left the market as quietly as possible.
posted by alms at 11:03 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:03 AM on April 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

A French-born colleague of my husband was reading a promo brochure about Miami out loud. For a native French speaker speaking English, it can be hard to remember how to pronounce the vowels of "e" and "i."

Printed in the brochure: "Miami is full of world-class beaches." What he said: "Miami is full of world-class bitches."

Probably true either way.
posted by Liesl at 11:04 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Like Mandarin, Thai is a tonal language. The word "mai", for example, can be expressed in five different tones, with each meaning something different:

Chiang Mai = new city (mai = "new")
mai bpen rai = it doesn't matter (mai = "not")
aroy mai? = tasty? (mai = a question tag)

There's a joke sentence "maa maa maa maa maa" that involves a dog and coming ("maa" can mean "dog" or "come" depending on the tone), but I forget what it is.
posted by seemoreglass at 11:06 AM on April 24, 2013

I hate the contractions "can't" and "didn't" because when they are spoken, they are often not enunciated clearly and can sound just like "can" and "did", which completely reverses the speaker's meaning.
posted by marsha56 at 11:12 AM on April 24, 2013

In Spanish, Feliz año nuevo means "Happy New Year". If you leave out the tilde, it turns into Feliz ano nuevo (Happy new anus).
posted by clearlydemon at 11:13 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

A woman: without her, man would be lost.

A woman without her man would be lost.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:19 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Stop clubbing, baby seals!"
posted by kythuen at 11:21 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can change meaning a lot with just emphasis. Take this sentence as a classic example:

I never said she stole my money.

This seven-word sentence has seven different meanings if you change the emphasis from word to word as you re-read it.
posted by mikepop at 11:21 AM on April 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

No one has money. Noone has money.

Who on earth is this Mr. Noone guy, and why does he have the money?
posted by lstanley at 11:22 AM on April 24, 2013

A common one for French-speakers speaking English is "I have no idea" pronounced "I have no I.D."

And a mistake I made when I started speaking French: I asked a customer if he wanted "a petite poutine" (fries & cheese & gravy yum) but pronounced it "putain" which is a hooker. He was highly amused.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:30 AM on April 24, 2013

Just about any sentence in German involving the word "schwül".

With one minor vowel change you can shift an entire sentence to mean something quite different, because schwül="humid, muggy" whereas schwul="gay".

It doesn't help that u vs ü is a relatively small shift in vowel sounds, and is one that is sometimes hard to get right for non-native speakers.

More on schwul, schwül, and a discussion of the issue in a list of "German Words to Avoid" for foreign speakers.
posted by flug at 11:33 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

In French there's also "J'ai perdu mon ami" which means "I've lost my friend", and "J'ai pendu mon ami" which means "I've hung my friend".
posted by GenericUser at 11:35 AM on April 24, 2013

Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.
posted by anderjen at 11:36 AM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Commas save lives.
"Let's eat, grandma!"
"Let's eat grandma!"
posted by 2oh1 at 11:44 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ship my pants.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:49 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're really talking about phonemic changes. Phonemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language, and you can demonstrate them with minimal pairs of sets - cat, hat, mat, pat, vat, bat - for example. So any sentence where one member of a minimal set is swapped for another member of that set will more or less result in a sentence with a single phonemic switch that changes the meaning drastically.

The examples are innumerable. "He drank some mead" v. "He drank some meat." "He fucked his wife" v. "He fucked his life." etc.

Emphasis, punctuation and vagueness are the suprasegmental-type things that don't change the phonemic structure of a sentence but can still alter the meaning to a degree through sound via pitch, stress, duration but not phonetics per se. Lots of examples above. The go to philosophy example seems to always be "John only reads books in libraries," which so far as I know has seven potential interpretations.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:01 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

PDQ Bach has a song about the importance of the comma.
posted by jepler at 12:03 PM on April 24, 2013

Thanks, Lutoslawski. That's indeed what I'm after, rather than stress, ambiguity or pure typography. I was going to try to clarify after cooking supper, but your explanation is better than anything I would come up with. I've marked answers accordingly.
posted by frimble at 12:11 PM on April 24, 2013

"I resent it" pops up regularly in work emails; it usually means "I sent it again," but it can also be read as "I'm irritated by it."
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:12 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

One to ponder is: "I couldn't care less" versus "I could care less". Americans tend to say the latter while the UK says the former, the "n't" should totally change the meaning, but for whatever reason, in this case, American society ignores the inversion.
posted by Static Vagabond at 12:18 PM on April 24, 2013

I once said "Tengo mierda" instead of "Tengo miedo". I meant to say "I have fear / I am afraid." Instead I said - "I have shit."
posted by valeries at 12:54 PM on April 24, 2013

I once said "ciorba de verisoare" instead of "ciorba de perisoare" in Romanian. From "meatball soup" to "cousin soup."
posted by chaiminda at 1:01 PM on April 24, 2013

Demetri Martin on adding "sort of" to sentences:

"'Sort of' is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It's just a filler. Sort of - it doesn't really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after 'I love you' or 'You're going to live' or 'It's a boy.'"
posted by 3FLryan at 1:31 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

> And an old roommate did a standup routine once, and one of her jokes was about how if you try to wish someone "Happy New Year" in Spanish and you get one of the sounds wrong, it comes out as "Happy new rectum".

This is true in general for year/rectum in Spanish. My husband says it's a classic Spanish 101 joke that when you say something like you're 27 years old you have to make sure to say "years" with the right n-sound or you will wind up saying you have 27 rectums.
posted by ifjuly at 3:13 PM on April 24, 2013

From school:

I had a teacher verbally substitute "orgasm" for "organism" in a biology class.
I had a professor substitute "conversation" for "conservation" repeatedly in written material for an environmental studies class.

Government officials sometimes run into problems when a typo announces a "pubic meeting" instead of a "public meeting."
posted by Michele in California at 3:38 PM on April 24, 2013

Another Spanish one similar to año/ano is the common usage of dolor (pain) instead of dólar (dollar) or embarazado (pregnant) vs. embarazoso (embarrassing). Also, in Latin American Spanish, cazar (to hunt) and casar (to marry) are pronounced identically. Coincidence?
posted by pitrified at 3:48 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Place all the indigents in a blender and purée."

Actual typo I caught in a recipe last year.
posted by limeonaire at 3:51 PM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

My high school English teacher used to have a poster for a frozen pizza ad that said (something like), "You can now enjoy a delicious meal in your pajama pants" or something like that. I think he meant to illustrate the importance of making sure you clarify the complement of a prepositional phase.
posted by mermily at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2013

My high school chorus once upon a time sold tickets printed up for our spring concert. The day after the show, we realized they read "Ann Arbor Pubic Schools," rather than "Ann Arbor Public Schools."
posted by Andrhia at 4:31 PM on April 24, 2013

Not sure if this counts or not, but there is/was a huge recording studio at the Edison Hotel in NYC. My company would do the sound and music editing and mixing for a lot of commercials there, often for General Mills cereals.

Which brought us the legendary voicemail from a (female) producer that she would be "out for the rest of the day doing Trix with Steve at the Edison Hotel."
posted by Mchelly at 5:18 PM on April 24, 2013

There's the old joke about the Texan visiting friends in Michigan. She asks her hosts "Do you have any rotten pepper?" They ask, bewildered, why she wants rotten pepper, and she replies "So I can rot (write) a letter home."
posted by fings at 5:35 PM on April 24, 2013

My high school Japanese teacher had good English, but still had trouble with R and L sounds. She was a good sport about this and would laugh pre-emptively when we had a packet about election terminology. She always giggled when she would try to say "election." On an actual election day, many of us said "HAPPY ERECTION DAY SENSEI!" and she cracked up.

When I went back to visit her a few years ago she was learning Spanish, so she was talking about ways it was different than learning English. She was talking about words that are difficult for her to say in English, and she mentioned that she finds it very hard to differentiate golf and gulf. That was one I had never thought about, but when you say them out loud, it's amazing how similar they sound but we never misinterpret them. I guess context prevents it.
posted by Nattie at 5:54 PM on April 24, 2013

Can't remember the source, but an (apocryphal?) business deal went bad when the agent said "the manufacturer wants another $100 per unit". The telegram back said NO PRICE TOO HIGH when the buyer meant NO, PRICE TOO HIGH.
posted by jet_silver at 6:29 PM on April 24, 2013

In Swahili, "kumi" means "ten" and "kuma" means "cunt", so you might find yourself saying the price of something is "elfu kuma" (1,000 cunts) instead of "elfu kumi" (ten thousand).

"Fua nguo" means "wash the clothes" and "vua nguo" means "undress", so stick to doing your own laundry.

"Kunywa" is "to drink" and "kunya" is "to shit" (the former having 2 syllables like the latter, with the y elided and kind of a palatalized n sound).

And this one you could definitely fall for, the possessive construction in the past and future tense relies on one little extra word. For instance, "nilikuwa na mbwa" means "I used to have a dog" and "nilikuwa mbwa" means "I was once a dog".
posted by geneva uswazi at 7:04 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another one common with French-Speakers in English, and one which still makes me giggle like a rotten kid whenever I hear it: "focus" pronounced as "fuck-us." Often used in management meetings, to much stifled hilarity.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:59 PM on April 24, 2013

"What's for dinner. Mother?"
posted by blob at 8:08 PM on April 24, 2013

I had an argument with a mathematician once who claimed maths could express anything expressible in language. He didn't come up with an answer to "Oh yeah?"

This is an old corny joke: woman from small town amateur dramatic society delivering her lines: "What's this thing called, love?"

Also, cousin soup? Want some.
posted by glasseyes at 9:33 PM on April 24, 2013

From Leo Rosten's The Joy of Yiddish:

I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> "After what she did to me?"
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> "What, you're giving me a lesson in ethics?"
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> I wouldn't go even if she were giving out free passes!
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> I'm having enough trouble deciding whether it's worth one.
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty.
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> Did she buy tickets to our daughter's recital?
I should buy two tickets for her concert? --> You mean, they call what she does a "concert"?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:07 AM on April 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Probably the most cringe inducing language snafu I ever witnessed was when a friend was discussing a goukon party (group date) that he had recently attended, using his barely sufficient Japanese. Unfortunately he kept calling it a goukan party (rape party). He had a great time, and he hoped to do it again.
posted by Ookseer at 12:07 AM on April 25, 2013

And while I'm in Japan:

A (different) American friend was touring Japan with his band. His name is Jimbo (チンボ) It's a very short trip from his name to chimpo (チンポ) (penis). It took him a while to understand why it was so funny when people started chanting his name at shows.

My biggest (known) language snafu was a request for mango (マンゴ) juice was understood as manko (マンコ) juice. The latter word is a generally rude colloquialism for vagina.
posted by Ookseer at 12:19 AM on April 25, 2013

Oops, I posted my accenting-based answer before reading Luto's comment.

But I've had trouble in French with

baser / baiser = base / kiss.

These an even greater risk with the reflexive forms

se baser / se baiser = base oneself / fuck.

Honestly, I don't really have all the subtleties down and I usually try to find some way to not say any of them.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:20 AM on April 25, 2013

It's worth noting that it's hard to come up with a sentence where both schwul and schwül make sense, so the trend of cautioning people about it is kind of 'Ha, ha, you might say 'gay'.' more than an actual risk of being misunderstood. Obviously, it is an error spellcheck won't catch and might make you look a bit of an idiot in writing. That said, you'd expect German to have more pairs of totally unrelated words separated only by an umlaut, but that's the only example I can come up with, though there's probably some other obvious one.

You can construct a whole family of these in German by swapping ab- and an-. For example, ansagen (to announce) and absagen (to cancel) or abnehmen (to take off) and annehmen (to accept/adopt/assume). Most of them are going to be obviously sort of related in meaning (because they're usually related to the 'base' verb if you think about it enough), so maybe that's not what you're looking for.

Oh. I recently encountered someone for whom 'differ' and 'defer' were homophones. (I'm confident they knew what both meant and that they are different words.)
posted by hoyland at 6:20 AM on April 25, 2013

"I am Danish!"
"I am a danish!"

(this is essentially the mistake that Kennedy made in his famous Berlin Wall speech -- "ein Berliner" is a pastry, just like a danish.)
posted by acm at 6:23 AM on April 25, 2013

The pastry thing is a misconception. The usage was correct.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:39 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The whole "Ich bin ein Berliner," thing was a crock from the start. I've always suspected that this was a deliberately spread meme, because no German would ever think that.

But it did lead to one of my all-time favorite jokes, a Simpsons scene where Mayor Quimby says, "Ich bin ein Springfielder," and Homers says, "Mmm, jelly donuts..."

> That said, you'd expect German to have more pairs of totally unrelated words separated only by an umlaut,

Well, many German nouns add an umlaut when pluralizing (Mutter/Mütter, Vater/Väter, etc). As someone who's spoken (some) German most of his life, adding an umlaut to a noun at least "feels" plural to me.

My father learned to speak, read and write Chinese. He claimed that there's a lot of ambiguity built into the language, to the point where educated speakers often go back in the middle of a sentence to quickly disambiguate something they said previously.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:57 PM on April 25, 2013

He claimed that there's a lot of ambiguity built into the language

My favorite description of Chinese is "too many meanings chasing too few syllables". I've never studied it so I can't tell how accurate it is, but it statements like that seem to support it.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2013

That said, you'd expect German to have more pairs of totally unrelated words separated only by an umlaut

Got another one. Sort of, anyway. Ohr (ear) and Öhr (eye, in the sense of eye of a needle), but apparently they're etymologically related. (Though the same may be true of schwul/schwül. There's a lot on Wiktionary about that if you want to read it.)

Danish has ol (some kind of earth wall--my dictionary isn't great) and øl (beer). Despite the fact I'm going on about umlauts in the previous sentence, o and ø are distinct letters in Danish (though I guess as vowels they differ by umlaut, but I'm out of my depth saying that).
posted by hoyland at 4:47 PM on April 25, 2013

From a recent trip to Paris:
où est le Jeu de Paume? (where is the gallery of postmodern photography?)
où est le jus de pomme? (where is the apple juice?)
posted by eddydamascene at 11:33 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Astronomical tourism in Chile   |   Where Do I Find On-Line Volunteers For Art Project... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.