Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

First of all, this is accredited as the longest legitimate sentence in the English language that uses only one word.

But what does it mean?

Well, we’ll try some substitution. It uses three meanings of “buffalo”. In order of usage:

  • Buffalo, a city in New York
  • buffalo, an animal also known as a Bison
  • buffalo, a verb meaning bewilder, confuse, deceive

We’ll substitute, respectively, “city”, “bison” and “confuse”:
“City bison city bison confuse confuse city bison”
Add a comma:
“City bison city bison confuse, confuse city bison”

The first bit can be phrased as “City bison that city bison confuse…”
Why? Say I mentioned “Chocolate I eat“. I am referring to chocolate that is eaten by me (a very worthwhile use of time). Similarly, “City bison city bison confuse” refers to city bison that are confused by city bison.

So basically, it means that buffalo from the city of Buffalo that are buffaloed by the buffalo of Buffalo, themselves buffalo the buffalo from Buffalo.

Want to say it to your friends (they won’t understand)? It’s eight buffaloes, the first, third and seventh being capitalised.

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

…what? Does that even make sense?

The answer is, well, actually “not really”. Though that is only a matter of punctuation. Add the correct punctuation and you get “James, while John had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had a better effect on the teacher.

First, there is some necessary context required to understand this, then some explanation.

The story tells of a situation in an English class. John wrote “The man had a cold”. James wrote “The man had had a cold”. Because “had had” is correct, it had had a better effect on the teacher.

What does “had had” even mean? Why not one had?

The difference is in tense. Many people are accustomed to three tenses: past, present and future. While this is correct, they are subdivided into other categories; English in fact has many more tenses than those three.

The tense relevant here is “Past perfect” or “Pluperfect”. Pluperfect is used for events that happened long in the past, and is used by adding the appropriate from of “have” in front of a past tense verb, like “I had eaten my chocolate”. Note the extra meaning contrasted to “I ate my chocolate”. The thing about “had had” is that “had” is itself a past tense verb, so the two “had”s are technically different. The first is an auxiliary verb (I won’t bore you with details) and the second a past tense verb. Basically it means that, at some point in the past, the man was having a cold.

Because the pluperfect “had had” is correct, it had had a better response from the teacher.

I mentioned a lot more tenses. Well, take for example:

had eaten, had been eating, have been eating, ate, have eaten, has been eating, will be eating, will have been eating, am eating, was eating, will eat, eat, will have eaten, would have eaten, would have been eating, would eat, …

You see?

(In case it wasn’t apparent, I like eating)