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Name: Fatima Nicole J.

Ferandez Date: April 03, 2019

The Humor of Linguistic Ambiguity as Found in Dad Jokes


The linguistic ambiguit y is an important factor in creating Dad Jokes,

according to Charina (2017) “Ambiguit y as a language device commonl y used to

create puns in humors gives some insights into how word play can manipulate the

interpretation of meaning resulting in humorous and witt y senses.”

As stated by Empson (2014 ) “Ambiguit y is associated with the word

puzzling, or perple xing and perplexing indicates a form of unclarit y in the

communication process,” and in linguistic ambiguit y this is clear, or unclear, a

sentence may have multiple interpretations, making the overall meaning confusing

or cause it to be misinterpreted.

According to Pehar (2001) “ambiguit y in linguistics arises due to the fact

that realit y is much more complex than language; and therefore the demands of

expressing one’s thoughts are always higher than the symbols or the words used

to denote this reality.” This complexity of language ambiguit y often causes

meanings to be jumbled up.


Linguistic ambiguity as explained by Oaks (2010) “An utterance is

structurall y ambiguous when it can yield more than one syntactic interpretation

or when it implies more than one syntactic relationship between constituents

within a structure.” This ambiguit y often occurs when a sentence is not properl y

structured, leading to multiple meanings and misinterpretations.

The different t ypes of ambiguities are the lexical, syntactical , and

phonological. These t ypes of ambiguities refer to the parts of speech, such as

nouns, verbs, and prepositions can contain the two or more meanings. Although,

the collected dad jokes will onl y be anal yzed according to the syntactic ambiguit y

in order to be coherent to the study of syntax.

These terrible jokes known as “Dad Jokes” are unoriginal or unfunny jokes

supposedl y told by middle -aged or older men (oxford dictionary) and have gotten

popular after the colonial period. As stated by Siede (2018) “ One ties into the

shifting roles fathers have played across American history. During the colonial

era, fathers were the distanced, didactic leaders of their families. Over the next

few centuries, however, they slowl y grew into the more active, engaged fathe rs

of today.” Due to these more engaged fathers, they have had more time to sit in

and get to know their children, leading to qualit y time full of Dad Jokes.

The study is limited to the select dad jokes from Buzzfeed and Readers

Digest, and so the researcher will not tackle dad jokes outside these articles, for

the articles have a sufficient number of dad jokes within it and shall find out how

the linguistic ambiguit y in sentences or conversations makes dad jokes through

Syntactic ambiguit y theory.

This study will find out how the linguistic ambiguit y in sentences or

conversations makes dad jokes through Syntactic ambiguit y theory and selection

of various dad jokes. Specificall y, the study shall answer the following questions

1. What makes the selected Dad Jokes ambiguous? 2. How does the syntactic

ambiguit y in the jokes create humor?

Syntactic Ambiguity Theory

Structural ambiguit y or S yntactic ambiguity defined by Lew (1996, p. 128 )

“ dualit y…of semantic interpretations motivated by the structural patterns of the

language system.” This ambiguit y, unlike lexical, which deals with ambiguit y in

words, s yntactic ambiguit y deals with the sequence of words.

According to Bucaria (2004) is created by confusion between diff erent

classes of parts of speech, so that the two interpretations require a restructuring

of the sentence. The sequence of the words may cause ambiguit y depending on

the next word of the word before it.

Phrase Structure Gramma r

Phrase Structure Grammar as defined by Hickey (2017, p12) “This is

a t ype of grammar which attempts to show the structure which lies behind a

sentence by breaking it down into its component .” Through this theory the

structure of the sentence can be isolated into the different t ypes with their own

respective codes, such as, sentence(S), verb phrase (VP), prepositional phrase

(PP), and adjective phrase.

The phrase structure grammar proposed by Chomsky (1956) “is the form of

grammar [that] corresponds to [the] conception of linguistic structure.” Which

meant that the theory consisted of Chomsky’s’ knowledge in perceiving how

casual techniques for dividing and arranging expressions could be delivered by

methods such as rules. The different rules categori zed by Chomsky (1956) “the

form A → ω that would ‘rewrite’ a single word class label A by a string ω (which

could consist of labels along with words and formatives), Thus a rule such as S

→ NP VP would rewrite a sentence S by a subject NP and a VP predicat e, and the

rule V → took would classify took as a verb.”

Related Studies

Lexical and Syntactic Ambiguity as a Source of Humor in the Case of

Newspaper Headlines

The study discusses the forms of linguistic ambiguit y in newspaper

headlines, specifically focusing on the lexical and syntactic ambiguities the are

the source for these humorous newspaper headlines. Around 135 newspaper

headlines were collected by the researcher from the internet, all of which are

containing jokes and humor, the newspaper headl ines were then anal yzed to be

“true” and are from actual newspapers.

Newspaper headlines, these are interesting due to their repetitiveness, such

as alliteration and rhyme in order to amuse readers and entice them into reading

the column on the specific topic and although the study focuses on headlines,

there will onl y be a select number of headlines to be taken , preferabl y those which

have caught readers’ attention due to its humorous interpretation.

Linguistic ambiguit y according Bucaria (2004) “lingu istic phenomena that

contributes to create this kind of semantic confusion will be analyzed and divided,

as is customary, into the three main categories of ambiguit y, Lexical, S yntactic,

and Phonological” the humorous newspaper headlines were classified according

to the two categories , Lexical and S yntactic.

Syntactic ambiguit y is rarer because seems to be more difficult to process

appears then to be applicable primaril y to voluntary humor, that is those genres

of humor that are specificall y designed to be funny, such as jokes (Bucaria 2004).

Linguistic Ambiguity in Language -based Jokes

The importance of ambiguit y in order to make jokes, made by the researcher

Sarah Seewoester (2009). W hose study of linguistic ambiguit y relies on

similarities of sounds, ambiguous word meaning, or syntactic representations .


the different t ypes of language -based jokes were anal yzed, such as the

phonological, lexical, and syntactic -based jokes. By stating and recognizing

similar studies, the researcher identified structural ambiguit y, which in English

is also favored by the morphologic characteristics of the language, where a noun

often has the same form of a verb, or vice versa, or the past tense and the past

participle of a verb often coincide ( Bucaria, 2004) .

The result of the study wherein Two hundred twent y -five jokes were

anal yzed for signs of phonological, lexical, or syntactic ambiguit y and of these

jokes 225 jokes, 21 were eliminated for lack of a phonologicall y, lexicall y, or

s yntacticall y ambiguous element and the remaining 204 jokes, a total of 251

instances of linguistic ambiguit y happened.


The research is a Descriptive anal ysis of a collection of Dad Jokes and

observation of data from Buzzfeed and Readers Digest . Qualitative data was used

in the study, which has narrative data collected from a case study.

The instruments used to conduct this study are a collection of online data such

as articles and past researches that are noteworthy, reliable and related of

linguistic ambiguit y and dad jokes. To ensure the validit y of these articles and

researches, onl y publi shed and approved studies and well -known news articles

were taken, such as those from Buzzfeed and Readers Digest


Classification of Dad Jokes

From the sites Buzzfeed and Readers Digest are a total number of 10 jokes,

5 from Buzzfeed and 5 from Readers digest. They were selected specificall y

because of their use of linguistic ambiguity to elicit jokes and or puns and thei r

relation to dad jokes .

Syntactic ambiguit y or structural ambiguity refers to a whole sentence or a

sequence of words being ambiguous or containing two or more meanings and is

dependent on the dualit y or multiple meanings due to its structural form and

patterns (Lew 1996, p. 128 -130). The 10 dad jokes collected from both Readers

Digest and Buzzfeed are explained below according to their syntactic ambiguit y:

 Dad, can you put m y shoes on?

No, I don’t think they’ll fit me.

The ambiguit y in the first dad joke can be seen with how the sentence is

structured, such as the direction of who should put the shoe on, the direct

object of the sentence is the “shoe” and the subject is dad, but where the

message is mixed up is “put m y shoes on” for it can either be directed to the

son or the dad, the first interpr etation could be that the son wants the dad to

put the shoes on him, and the other interpretation is if the dad could put his

sons’ shoes on himself.


 Dad, did you get a haircut?

No, I got them all cut.

The ambiguit y of the dad joke lies with the “a haircut,” these set of words

can change the meaning of the question, for the first meaning of “get a haircut”

is when someone gets all of their hair cut into the ir preferred measurement,

while the other one “get a hair cut” is interpreted as onl y a single piece of hair

from their head is cut. The multiple interpretation is due to that of the

sequence, combining, and separating of particular words.

 KID: "Dad, make me a sandwich!"

DAD: "Poof, you’re a sandwich!”

The ambiguit y of the phrase “make me a sandwich ,” wherein the phrase

becomes ambiguous, due to it containing two meanings. The first meaning is

understood as the son wants to be turned into a sandwich, for the verb “make”

is near “me,” while the second meaning is interpre ted as the son is as king his

dad to make a sandwich. The last interpretation is achieved when the verb

depicts the direct object “sandwich” instead of “me.”


 MOM: "How do I look?"

DAD: "With your eyes."

The ambiguit y of the dad joke is seen within the whole phrase “how do I

look,” these set of words can change the meaning of the question, for the first

meaning of “how do I look” is someone asking how can they see something or

how do they use their eyes, while the other interpretation is that they want to

know where to find something or where a particular object is.

 SON: Dad, can you put the cat out?

DAD: I didn’t know it was on fire.

The ambiguit y in the dad joke can be seen with how the sentence is

structured, such as what can be interpreted from the phrase “can you put the

cat out?” but where the message is mixed up is in “put out” for this could mean

that the son wants his dad to take the cat outside, or that the cat is on fire,

therefore it should be “put out.”

 SON: How many apples grow on a tree?

DAD: All of them.


The ambiguit y is seen in the question “How many apples grow on a tree,”

wherein the sentence becomes ambiguous, due the direction of “grow”. The

first meaning is understood as which of the apples grow on the tree, identifying

that it is not clear if onl y a select number of apples grow on that tree, while

the second meaning is interpreted as how many apples have grown on the tree.

 SON: dad can you call me a cab

DAD: you’re a cab

The ambiguit y of the dad joke starts with the phrase “can you call me a

cab,” these set of words can change the meaning of which one to call and what

kind of “call.” For the first meaning of “can you call me a cab,” someone is

named as a cab, while the other one “can you call me a cab” is interpreted as

someone asking another person to call them a taxi or service so that they can

get somewhere.

 WAITER: Do you want a box for your leftovers

DAD: No, but I’ll wrestle you for them

The ambiguit y of the dad joke begins with “want a box for your leftovers ,”

wherein the sentence becomes ambiguous because of the placement of “box”

and its double meaning. Although it is not rare to see both lexical and syntactic

ambiguit y, it can be seen working together in this dad joke. The first meaning

is understood as which the waiter will give the dad a boxing ring for the

leftovers. This is implied due to the ambiguit y of the word box as well the how

it is placed after the verb. W hile the second meaning is interpreted as the

waiter is offering a “box” or a carton for their leftover t o be placed in.

 SON: Dad, I’m hungry

DAD: Hi hungry, I’m dad

This one is a classic, since it was one of the firstl y introduced dad joke and

is widel y used by dads. The ambiguit y lies in the “I’m hungry.” The structure

implies that he is either introducing himself by the name of “hungry” or that

he wants some food and is telling the dad what he feels.

 DAUGHTER: the chicken is ready to eat dad

DAD: I’m sorry but I’m not on the menu

The ambiguit y of the dad joke is a mix of both lack of pause (to identify

that there is a comma) and the sequencing of words that gives out two

interpretations. For the first meaning, the daughter implies that the chicken is

ready to eat her father, while the other one expresses how the chicken is cooked

and her father can now eat it.


Concluding Remarks

The results of the anal ysis showed the 10 collected dad jokes from the

articles of Buzzfeed and Readers Digest. These 10 jokes were first anal yzed and

given interpret ation to why they were humorous due to syntactic ambiguit y. It can

be observed that these dad jokes focus on ambiguit y using the structure of the

sentence or a common phrase.

It is also observed that common phrases can carry ambiguous meaning when

not properl y structured and if one word may contain multiple interpretations.

These jokes are found humorous due to their literal interpretations of common

things that will be asked or said.


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