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Collection of Ambiguous or Inconsistent/Incomplete
Compiled by Jeff Gray
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,
"it means just what I choose it to mean - nothing more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice,
"whether you can make words mean so many different things."
Lewis Carroll

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 500 words used most in the
English language each have an average of 23 different meanings. The word
"round," for instance, has 70 distinctly different meanings. The variance of word
meanings in natural language has always posed problems for those who attempt
to construct an unambiguous and consistent statement. It is often the case that a
written statement could be interpreted in several ways by different individuals,
thus rendering the statement subjective rather than objective. The first detailed
examination of this problem with respect to the specifications of computer
systems is contained in [Hill, 72]. Hill provides a plethora of examples to
illustrate this common problem. Peter G. Neumann illustrated this point by
constructing a sentence which contained the restrictive qualifier "only." He then
showed that by placing the word "only" in 15 different places in the sentence
resulted in over 20 different interpretations [Neumann, 84]. Moreover, other
words like "never," "should," "nothing," and "usually" are sometimes applied
in a manner in which a double meaning can be ascribed. In particular, the word
"nothing" was a favorite word often used by Lewis Carroll.
Occasionally the ambiguity found in natural language may evoke images of the
ridiculous while at other times it may be the source of humor. The examples
presented here point to the potential confusion that can result when using natural
language. That is, informal descriptions are subject to the vagaries and
ambiguities of the natural language in which they are expressed. Those who
formulated these statements did not fully consider the implications caused by the
way in which the sentences were phrased. In a sense, they became victims of the
Humpty-Dumpty Syndrome, a phenomenon where individuals fail to realize that

words have many meanings and that others may not always be able to surmise
the intent of a particular statement.
If simple statements like those given on this Web page are vulnerable to
ambiguity, one can only imagine the potential problems that exist within a
software requirements specification (SRS) written entirely in natural language.
Such documents can easily be hundreds or thousands of pages in length. The
possibility of ambiguities and inconsistent statements existing in such documents
is very real.
The following represents a collection of ambiguous or inconsistent statements
that I have found from various places. While most of them provide a source of
amusement, my overall goal is to show that the cavalier use of natural language
can often lead to unintended meanings.
I plan to add new content to this list periodically. If you have any additions or
suggestions, please contact me at:
gray (at)

English is a Silly Language!
English Homonyms
Missing Words
Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations
Poorly Worded Ads
Instruction Labels
Fuzzy Requirements
Ambiguous Newspaper Headlines
Church Bulletins
Insurance Forms
On The Importance of Correct Punctuation
Double Negatives

Homonyms: Spell Checker

"Too" / "Nothing" / "More"
Naur Text Processing Problem
Why Ask Why?
Contradicting Proverbs
Abort, Retry, Fail?
Related Resources

English is a Silly Language!

Part 1:
Lets face it, English is a stupid
There is no egg in the eggplant.
No ham in the hamburger.
And neither pine nor apple in the
English muffins were not invented
French fries were not invented in

in England.

We sometimes take English for granted.

But if we examine its paradoxes-We find that Quicksand takes you down slowly.
Boxing rings are square.
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don't fing.
If the plural of tooth is teeth,
shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught.
If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What does a humanitarian eat!?
Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down
And you fill in a form
By filling it out
And a bell is only heard once it goes!
English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn't a race at all)

That is why:
When the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible
And why it is that when I wind up my watch
it starts but when I wind up this poem
it ends?

English Homonyms

We must polish the Polish furniture.

He could lead if he would get the lead out.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
This was a good time to present the present.
A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
They sent a sewer down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
Upon seeing the tear in my clothes I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Missing Words
The omission of a key word from a statement can drastically change the intended meaning, as
evidenced by the following examples:
I saw this at a department store in my hometown recently:
"We now have dress shirts on sale for men with 16 necks"

Hopefully, the omission of "-inch" was not intentional!

Adultery Considered OK?
In 1623, Baker and Lukas published a Bible in England since called "The Wicked Bible,"
because the little word "NOT" was omitted in the seventh commandment: "Thou shalt not
commit adultery." The printers were heavily fined by the high commission and the whole edition

Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations

Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations
(Ways to handle those tricky situations! )
You're called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely
lazy. You don't want to lie --- but you also don't want to risk losing
even a lazy friend.
Try this line: "In my opinion," you say as sincerely as you can
manage, "you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for
This gem of double meaning is the creation of Robert Thornton, a
professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
Thornton was frustrated about an occupational hazard for teachers,
having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious
qualifications, so he put together an arsenal of statements that can
be read two ways.
He calls his collection the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous
Recommendations. Or LIAR, for short.
LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal
qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate while allowing
the candidate to believe that it is high praise, Thornton explained
last week.
Some examples from LIAR
To describe a person who is totally inept: I most enthusiastically
recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow
workers: I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague
of mine.
To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be

better left unfilled: I can assure you that no person would be better
for the job.
To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration: I
would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of
To describe a person with lackluster credentials: All in all, I cannot
say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too
Thornton pointed out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving
friendships, but it also can help avoid serious legal trouble in a
time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of
In most states, he noted, job applicants have the right to read the
letters of recommendations and can even file suit against the writer
if the contents are negative.
When the writer uses LIAR, however, whether perceived correctly or not
by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof, Thornton

The following was sent to me by Steve Schach, after he noticed that the wording
in this Call for Papers might prompt many on the SEWORLD mailing list to be more
Date: Mon, 19 May 2003 12:08:19 -0600 (MDT)
Please apologize if you receive multiple copies of this message.

R. D. Jones And His Sewing Machine

The following is an ad from a real-life newspaper which appeared

four days in a row - the last three hopelessly trying to correct
the first day's mistake.

For sale: R. D. Jones has one sewing machine for sale. Phone
948-0707 after 7 P.M.. and ask for Mrs. Kelly who lives with him
Notice: We regret having erred In R. D. Jones' ad yesterday. It
should have read "One sewing machine for sale cheap. Phone
948-0707 and ask for Mrs. Kelly, who lives with him after 7 P.M."
Notice: R. D. Jones has informed us that he has received several
annoying telephone calls because of the error we made in the
classified ad yesterday. The ad stands correct as follows: "For
sale -- R. D. Jones has one sewing machine for sale. Cheap. Phone
948-0707 after 7 P.M. and ask for Mrs. Kelly who loves with him."
Notice: I, R. D. Jones, have no sewing machine for sale. I
intentionally broke it. Don't call 948-0707 as I have had the
phone disconnected. I have not been carrying on with Mrs. Kelly.
Until yesterday she was my housekeeper, but she has now quit.

"I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajams I'll never know" Groucho
Often, you may see a sign like the following at a mall:
Entire store 25% off
Do I need to buy the whole store, or can I just pick out a few items of interest?
"The word 'good' has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother
at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man."
(G.K. Chesterton)
Joe was in court fighting a ticket for parking his car in a restricted area. The judge asked him
if he had anything to say in his defense. "They should not put up such misleading notices", said
What did Woodsy the Owl mean when he said:
"I found a smouldering cigarette left by a horse."
"This is the worst disaster in California since I was elected." --California Governor Pat
Brown, discussing a local flood
The word "hit" can also have several very different meanings - during the final game of the
1997 National League Championship Series in baseball, Bob Costas mentioned that NBC has a
special Web page where you can "HIT ON a computer." Costas meant that the techniques for
hitting a baseball could be explored from their web page. Co-announcer, Bob Eucker (sic?),
however, voiced his displeasure of computing by saying that he "hits on" (or bangs) his computer
everyday. A further meaning could be ascribed to this quote by someone who has a sexual
attraction to computers...
A friend (Jonathan Sprinkle) pointed out to me that his phone bill always says, "Please make
check payable to BellSouth in U.S. Funds" so he always writes his checks out to:

"BellSouth in U.S. Funds"

A friend of mine said this to me the other day. His statement illutrates the potential problem
of using "it":
I will bring my bike tomorrow if it looks nice in the morning.
Check out the following headline from Reuters:
Philip Morris' Bible gets $12.8 mln in 1999

WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - Geoffrey Bible, chairman and chief executive of the
world's largest tobacco company Philip Morris Cos. Inc.
Customer support people may get a good laugh when they are asked for help concerning the
following message:
"Please press ANY key to continue..."
Most keyboards do not have a special "ANY" key.
A similar situation is described in the following:
Tech Support: "What does the screen say now?"
Person: "It says, 'Hit ENTER when ready'."
Tech Support: "Well?"
Person: "How do I know when it's ready?
In Computer Standards and Interfaces, September 1995, Haim Kilov offers the following in
his guest editorial:
"Lets look at a naming example attributed by Washington Technology to James Schlesinger (a
Senior DoD executive); remarks are paraphrased to some degree:
"...when the Marines are 'ordered' to 'secure a building,' they form a landing party and assualt it.
The same instructions will lead the Army to occupy the building with a troop of infantry, and the
Navy will characteristically respond by sending a yeoman to assure that the building lights are
turned out. When the Air Force acts on these instructions, what results is a 'three years lease with
an option to purchase'."
Politicians are certainly not exempt from inconsistencies:
"When two trains approach each other at a crossing, both shall come to a full stop and neither
start up again until the other has gone." Kansas State Legislature, early 1890's
A statement that I often see at restaurants:
"Please wait for hostess to be seated"
Misc. Ambiguous Sentences
The old men and women left the room.
Bill sold the invisible man's hat.

They don't smoke or drink.

I saw her duck.

The chickens are too hot to eat.

I said I would see you on Tuesday.

Students hate annoying professors.

Sue adores men who love women who don't smoke.

They hit the man with a cane.

Happily they left.

One can often find inconsistent or ambiguous statements on roadside signs. Obviously, this is
due to the fact that the luxury of being verbose is not available due to a limited amount of space.
Some of the following have been forwarded to me or personally witnessed.
I recently saw this on a sign at a burger restaurant in Nashville:
We don't just serve hamburgers, we serve people.
One might find the following sign in a residential neighborhood:
"Slow children at play."
While driving toward Murfreesboro from Nashville, I witnessed the following statement on a
billboard on I-24. The omission of the conjunction "and" can sure change the intended meaning.
I wonder if this store freeze-dries their souvenirs to prevent melting?
"Ice Cream Souvenirs"
The following joke is circulating the Internet:

The other day a friend of mine got into some trouble

with the authorities.
It seems he'd parked his car in a restricted area.
But he saw a cop putting a ticket on it, and complained
so vociferously that he got hauled in front of the local law.

It didn't get much better from there.

He insisted on explaining things to the judge
at some length, I'm afraid.
And what did he say? Well, over and over again, he just
kept repeating, "But the sign clearly said: Fine for
parking here!'"

At the Franklin Lanes bowling alley, in Franklin, TN, I saw the following sign and several
ideas came to mind:
"Vending Restrooms"
From Muscle Media 2K, on page 51, strength coach Charles Poliquin writes:
"A former Ms. Olympia competitor comes to mind: she is the type who would walk into a
shopping center, see a sign which read "Wet Floor," and do it!"

What do they mean!?


Sign in a London department store: BARGAIN BASEMENT UPSTAIRS






Sign outside a new town hall which was to be opened by the Prince of Wales: THE

Outside a photographers studio: OUT TO LUNCH: IF NOT BACK BY FIVE, OUT FOR



Notice sent to residents of a Whiltshire parish: DUE TO INCREASING PROBLEMS




Notice in a dry cleaner's window: ANYONE LEAVING THEIR GARMENTS HERE


Spotted in a safari park: ELEPHANTS PLEASE STAY IN YOUR CAR



Sign on a repair shop door: WE CAN REPAIR ANYTHING. (PLEASE KNOCK HARD

Spotted in a toilet in a London office block: TOILET OUT OF ORDER. PLEASE USE

Actual signs posted in foreign countries as reported by American tourists...

Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is
suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.
Ladies are requested not to have children at the bar.

You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers,
artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.

The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be


Ladies may have a fit upstairs.

Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.


We will take your bags and send them in all directions.

Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.

Roasted duck let loose and beef rashers beaten up in the country people's fashion.

Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.


Teeth extracted by the latest methodists.

Dresses for street walking.

Order summer suits early. In a big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.


Drop your trousers here for best results.

Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.

Please leave your values at the front desk.

You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.

The following are actual signs seen across the good ol' U.S.A.

At gas eateries through the nation: Eat here and get gas.
At a truck stop in Tulsa, OK: Kids with gas eat free.

At a Santa Fe gas station: We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.

In the Mammoth Caves in Virginia: Bottomless Pit...175 Feet Deep.

At a diet center in Poughkeepsie, NY: Lose All Your Weight: $198.

In a Baltimore restaurant: All food must pass through the cashier before entering the
dining room.

In a Portland, ME parking garage: Tenants not paid by the 15th of the month will be

In a New Hampshire jewelry store: Ears pierced while you wait.

In a New York restaurant: Customers who consider our waitresses uncivil ought to see the

On the wall of a Baltimore estate: Trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the
law. --Sisters of Mercy

On a long-established New Mexico dry cleaners: 38 years on the same spot.

In a Los Angeles dance hall: Good clean dancing every night but Sunday.

On a movie theater: Children's matinee today. Adults not admitted unless with child.

In a Florida maternity ward: No children allowed.

In a New York drugstore: We dispense with accuracy

On a New Hampshire medical building: Martin Diabetes Professional Ass.

In the offices of a loan company: Ask about our plans for owning your home.

In a New York medical building: Mental Health Prevention Center

In a toy department: Five Santa Clauses -- No waiting!

On a New York convalescent home: For the sick and tired of the Episcopal Church.

On a Maine shop: Our motto is to give our customers the lowest possible prices and

At a number of military bases: Restricted to unauthorized personnel.

On a display of "I love you only" valentine cards: Now available in multi-packs.

In the window of a Kentucky appliance store: Don't kill your wife. Let our washing
machine do the dirty work.

In a funeral parlor: Ask about our layaway plan.

In a clothing store: Wonderful bargains for men with 16 and 17 necks.

In a Tacoma, Washington men's clothing store: 15 men's wool suits, $10. They won't last
an hour!

On a shopping mall marquee: Archery Tournament -- Ears pierced

Outside a country shop: We buy junk and sell antiques.

On a Pennsylvania highway: Drive carefully. Auto accidents kill most people 15 to 19.

In downtown Boston: Calahan Tunnel -- No end

In the window of an Oregon store: Why go elsewhere and be cheated when you can come

In a Maine restaurant: Open 7 days a week and weekends.

In a New Jersey restaurant: Open 11 AM to 11 PM midnight.

In front of a New Hampshire restaurant: Now serving live lobsters.

On a radiator repair garage: Best place to take a leak.

On a movie marquee: Now playing: ADAM AND EVE with a cast of thousands!

In the vestry of a New England church: Will the last person to leave please see that the
perpetual light is extinguished.

In a Pennsylvania cemetery: Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but
their own graves.

On a roller coaster: Watch your head.

On the grounds of a public school: No trespassing without permission.

In a library: Blotter paper will no longer be available until the public stops taking it away.

On a Tennessee highway: When this sign is under water, this road is impassable.

Similarly, in front of a New Hampshire car wash: If you can't read this, it's time to wash
your car.

And apparently, somewhere in England in an open field otherwise untouched by human

presence, there is a sign that says "Do not throw stones at this sign."

Poorly Worded Ads

2 female Boston Terrier puppies, 7 weeks old, Perfect markings, 555-1234. Leave mess.
Lost: small apricot poodle. Reward. Neutered. Like one of the family.

A superb and inexpensive restaurant. Fine food expertly served by waitresses in

appetizing forms.

Dinner Special -- Turkey $2.35; Chicken or Beef $2.25; Children $2.00.

For sale: an antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.

Four-poster bed, 101 years old. Perfect for antique lover.

Now is your chance to have your ears pierced and get an extra pair to take home, too.

Wanted: 50 girls for stripping machine operators in factory.

Wanted: Unmarried girls to pick fresh fruit and produce at night.

We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand.

For Sale. Three canaries of undermined sex.

For Sale -- Eight puppies from a German Shepherd and an Alaskan Hussy.

Great Dames for sale.

Have several very old dresses from grandmother in beautiful condition.

Tired of cleaning yourself? Let me do it.

Dog for sale: eats anything and is fond of children.

Vacation Special: have your home exterminated.

If you think you've seen everything in Paris, visit the Pere Lachasis Cemetery. It boasts
such immortals as Moliere, Jean de la Fontain, and Chopin.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, the breathtaking backdrop for the Serena Lodge. Swim in the lovely
pool while you drink it all in.

The hotel has bowling alleys, tennis courts, comfortable beds, and other athletic facilities.

Get rid of aunts: Zap does the job in 24 hours.

Toaster: A gift that every member of the family appreciates. Automatically burns toast.

Sheer stockings. Designed for fancy dress, but so serviceable that lots of women wear
nothing else.

Stock up and save. Limit: one.

We build bodies that last a lifetime.

For Rent: 6-room hated apartment.

Man, honest. Will take anything.

Wanted: chambermaid in rectory. Love in, $200 a month. References required.

Man wanted to work in dynamite factory. Must be willing to travel.

Used Cars: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!

Christmas tag-sale. Handmade gifts for the hard-to-find person.

Modular Sofas. Only $299. For rest or fore play.

Wanted: Hair-cutter. Excellent growth potential.

Wanted. Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.

3-year-old teacher need for pre-school. Experience preferred.

Our experienced Mom will care of your child. Fenced yard, meals, and smacks included.

Our bikinis are exciting. They are simply the tops.

Auto Repair Service. Free pick-up and delivery. Try us once, you'll never go anywhere

Holcross pullets. Starting to lay Betty Clayton, Granite 5-6204.

Illiterate? Write today for free help.

Girl wanted to assist magician in cutting-off-head illusion. Blue Cross and salary.

Wanted. Widower with school-age children requires person to assume general

housekeeping duties. Must be capable of contributing to growth of family.

Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.

Semi-Annual after-Christmas Sale.

And now, the Superstore--unequaled in size, unmatched in variety, unrivaled


We will oil your sewing machine and adjust tension in your home for $1.00.

Coors put its slogan, "Turn it loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer from

Clairol introduced the "Mist Stick," a curling iron, into German only to find out that
"mist" is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the "manure stick".

The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, "Salem-Feeling Free", was translated into the
Japanese market as "When smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind
seems to be free and empty."

When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the
US, with the beautiful baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies
routinely put pictures on the label of what's inside, since most people can't read.

An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which
promoted the Pope's visit. Instead of "I saw the Pope" (el Papa), the shirts read "I saw the
potato" (la papa).

In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into "Schweppes
Toilet Water."

Pepsi's "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" translated into "Pepsi brings your
ancestors back from the grave," in Chinese.

When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have
read, "it won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you". Instead, the company thought that
the word "embarazar" (to impregnate) meant to embarrass, so the ad read: "It won't leak
in your pocket and make you pregnant".

Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American

campaign: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."

General Motor's marketing of the Nova did not go very well in Central and South
America. ("No va" means, of course, in Spanish: "It doesn't go.")

Instruction Labels
These are actual instruction labels on consumer goods. (Parenthetical commentary has been
On Sears hairdryer: Do not use while sleeping. (Gee, that's the only time I have to work on
my hair!)
On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside. (The
shoplifter special!)
On a bar of Dial soap: Directions: Use like regular soap. (and that would be how?)
On some Swann frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: Defrost. (But it's 'just' a suggestion!)
On Tesco's Tiramisu dessert: (printed on bottom of the box) Do not turn upside down. (Too
late! you lose!)
On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating. (Are you sure? Let's
On packaging for a Rowenta iron: Do not iron clothes on body. (But wouldn't that save more
time?) (Whose body?)
On Boot's Children's cough medicine: Do not drive car or operate machinery. (We could do a
lot to reduce the construction accidents if we just kept those 5 year olds off those fork lifts.)
On Nytol sleep aid: Warning: may cause drowsiness. (One would hope!)
On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning: keep out of children. (hmm...something must have
gotten lost in the translation...)
On a string of Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only. (As opposed to use in outer
On a food processor: Not to be used for the other use. (Now I'm curious.)

On Sainsbury's peanuts: Warning: contains nuts. (but no peas?)

On an American Airlines packet of nuts: Instructions: open packet, eat nuts. (somebody got
paid big bucks to write this one...)
On a Swedish chainsaw: Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands. (Raise your hand if
you've tried this...)
On a child's Superman costume: Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly. (Oh go
ahead! That's right, destroy a universal childhood belief.)

Fuzzy Requirements

From a British Airways Memorandum, quoted in Pilot Magazine, December

The Landing Pilot is the Non-Handling Pilot until the decision altitude
call, when the Handling Non-Landing Pilot hands the handling to the NonHandling
Landing Pilot, unless the latter "calls go around," in which case the Handling
Non-Landing Pilot continues handling and the Non-Handling Landing Pilot
non-handling until the next call of "land" or "go around" as appropriate. In
of recent confusions over these rules, it was deemed necessary to restate them

The following is included in the book Software Testing Management

Life on the Critical Path by Thomas C. Royer.


1988, the MITRE Corporation of Bedford, Massachusetts, prepared a

for the U.S. Air Force which included a list of keywords and forms
of when preparing or reviewing a specification [Buley, Moore, et
al. 1988]. The authors suggest being on the look out for
1. Incomplete lists ending with "etc.," "and/or," and "TBD."
2. Vague words and phrases such as "generally," "normally," "to the
greatest extent," and "where practicable."
3. Imprecise verbs such as "supported," "handled," "processed," or
4. Implied certainty, flagged by words such as "always," "never," "all,"
or "every."
5. Passive voice, such as "the counter is set." (By whom or what?)
6. Every pronoun, particularly "it" or "its." Each should have an explicit
and unmistakable reference.
7. Comparatives, such as "earliest," "latest," "highest." Words ending
in "or" or "est" should be suspect.

8. Words and phrases that cannot be quantified, such as flexible, modular,

achievable, efficient, adequate, accomplish, possible (or possibly),
correct (or correctly), minimum required, minimum acceptable, better,
higher, faster, less, slower, infrequent, to the extent specified, to
the extent required, 10 be compatible, to be associated with.
9 Words and phrases whose meaning can be disputed between developer
and customer, such as instantaneous, simultaneous, achievable, complots, finish, degraded, a minimum number of, nominal/normal/average, minimum, steady-state, coincident, adjacent, synchronous.
10. Contractually troublesome phrases:
a. "Design goal." The developer will spend money and other resources
with no guarantee of goal accomplishment.
b. "To the extent practicable." A decision in the eyes of the developer.
c. "Where applicable." There are no criteria for judgment.
d. "Shall be considered." The developer will think about.
e. "A minimum of X." The developer will provide exactly X.
Most of the difficulty with the fuzzy requirements addressed in this
chapter, and with the words and phrases flagged by the MITRE report, arise
from the imprecision of the English language as written by most people.
Substitutes for prose requirements should be used at every opportunity.(3)
To clarify requirements, the specification author should use any of the
Equations and logical relations to express constraints and
computational requirements.
(3) Note the way these imprecise phrases, such as "every opportunity,"
creep into discussions.
"The system shall do A. After completing A, the system shall do B. After
completing B, the system shall do C. After completing C, the system shall
do D. Upon completing D, the system shall do E." If the sequential
relationship between tasks A, B, C, D, and E is other than linear, then use a
"The system shall perform tasks A, B, C, D, and E as shown in Figure X."
Finally, a word about the often abused phrase "To Be Determined" or
"'TBD." TBD is used as a placeholder for requirements that haven't been
finalized. TBDs are meant to be conspicuous and easy to spot. They're a
message to readers that" there's something missing, but we haven't
forgotten it." When used that way, TBDs serve a very useful purpose.
reviewers who categorically reject specifications containing TBDS are simply inviting developers to submit specifications with much more subtle
TBDs, like the BIT requirement described earlier.
BULEY, E.R., MOORE, L.J., and OWESS, M.F., 1988. "B5 (SRS/IRS)

Guidelines," M88-57, ESD-TR-88-337. MITRE, Bedford, MA, December.


Why is it that we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

Act naturally

Resident alien

Genuine imitation

Good grief

Almost exactly

Sanitary landfill

Legally drunk

Jumbo Shrimp

American history

Small crowd

Soft rock

Sweet sorrow

"Now, then ..."

Taped live

Peace force

Plastic glasses

Tight slacks

Pretty ugly

Working vacation

Found missing

Advanced BASIC

Same difference

Alone together

Silent scream

Living dead

Synthetic natural gas

Passive aggression

Clearly misunderstood

Original pirated copy (Williams contribution)

Exact estimate

Ambiguous Newspaper Headlines

The Cuisine of India is a restaurant that I eat at frequently
for lunch (they are in the same building as the computer science
I was surprised to be watching Jay Leno one evening when he
did his Monday night "Headlines" feature and mentioned this
restaurant. In the Tennessean, they had placed an ad that
"Cuisine of India: Nashville's Finest Italian Restaurant"
Next time I go there I will ask for some tortellini...

Following the tragic JFK Jr. accident, Reuters reported:

Thursday July 22 9:22 AM ET (Reuters)
"Kennedys Board Cutter On Way To Sea Burial"

The story was corrected so that a "kitchen board cutter"

could not be inferred:

Thursday July 22 10:15 AM ET (Reuters)

Kennedys Board Ship To Scatter JFK Jr.'s Ashes
Here are some sentences from actual newspaper articles:

o Great care must be exercised in tying horses to trees, as

they are apt to bark.
o We do not tear your clothing with machinery; we do it
carefully by hand.
o After Governor Baldridge watched the lion perform, he was
taken to Main Street and fed twenty-five pounds of red meat in front of
the Fox Theater.
o Dr. Benjamin Porter visited the school yesterday and lectured on
"Destructive Pests". A large number were present.
o The Duchess handled the launching beautifully, confidently
smashing the champagne against the prow. The crowd cheered as she
majestically slid down the greasy runway into the sea.
o Anti-nuclear protestors released live cockroaches inside the
White House Friday, and these were arrested when they left and blocked a
security gate.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nude dancing took center stage on Wednesday at the U.S.
Supreme Court.
Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
March planned for Next August
Lingerie Shipment Hijacked--Thief Gives Police the Slip
L.A. Voters Approve Urban Renewal by Landslide
Quarter of a Million Chinese Live on Water
Hershey Bars Protest
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
Farmer Bill Dies in House
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
Stud Tires Out
Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again
British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
Eye Drops off Shelf
Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
Shot Off Woman's Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66
Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax
Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told
Miners Refuse to Work after Death

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Stolen Painting Found by Tree
Two Soviet Ships Collide, One Dies
Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter
Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One
Drunken Drivers Paid $1000 in '84
War Dims Hope for Peace
If Strike isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last a While
Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
Enfields Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
Red Tape Holds up New Bridge
Deer Kill 17,000
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
British Union Finds Dwarves in Short Supply
Ban On Soliciting Dead in Trotwood
Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing
Air Head Fired
Steals Clock, Faces Time
Prosecutor Releases Probe into Undersheriff
Old School Pillars are Replaced by Alumni
Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction
Include your Children when Baking Cookies

Church Bulletins

Don't let worry kill you - let the church help.

Thursday night - Potluck supper. Prayer and meditation to follow.

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The rosebud on the altar this morning is to announce the Birth of David Alan Belzer, the
sin of Rev. and Mrs. Julius Belzer.

This afternoon there will be a meeting in the South and North ends of the church.
Children will be baptized at both ends.

Tuesday at 4:00pm there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please
come early.

Wednesday, the ladies Liturgy society will meet. Mrs. Jones will sing "Put me in my little
bed" accompanied by the pastor.

Thursday at 5:00pm there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All wishing to
become little mothers, please see the minister in his study.

This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the

The service will close with "Little Drops of Water". One of the ladies will start quietly
and the rest of the congregation will join in.

Next Sunday a special collection will be taken to defray the cost of the new carpet. All
those wishing to do something on the new carpet will come forward and do so.

The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind and they may be seen in the
church basement Friday.

A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.

At the evening service tonight the sermon topic will be "What is hell?" Come early and
listen to our choir practice.

Bertha Belch, a missionary from Africa will be speaking tonight at Calvary Memorial
Church in Racine. Come tonight and hear Bertha Belch all the way from Africa.

Announcement in the church bulletin for a National PRAYER & FASTING Conference.
"The cost for attending the Fasting and Prayer conference includes meals".

"Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth
keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands".

The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.

The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on the people who are not
afflicted with any church.

The ladies Bible Study will be held on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. All ladies are
invited to lunch in the church hall after the B.S. is done.

The Pastor would appreciate it if the ladies of the congregation would lend him their
electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday morning.

The congregation is asked to remain seated until the end of the recession.

Low self-esteem support group will meet on Wednesday from 7.00 to 8.30 p.m. Please
use the back door.

The third verse of Blessed Assurance will be sung without musical accomplishment.

The Rev. Steacey spoke briefly, much to the delight of the congregation.

The Pastor will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing "Break forth
into Joy"

Next Sunday Mrs. Solosky will be soloist for the morning service. The Pastor will then
speak on "It's a terrible experience"

Due to the Pastor's illness, Sunday evening healing services will be discontinued until
further notice.

The music for today's service was all composed by George Friedrich Handel in
celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

Weight watchers will meet at 7 p.m. Please use large double door at the side entrance.

Six new choir gowns are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members
and to the deterioration of some older ones.

Insurance Forms
The following are actual statements found on insurance forms where car drivers
attempted to summarize the details of an accident in the fewest possible words.

Coming home I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I don't have.
The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intention.

I thought my window was down, but I found it was up when I put my head through it.

I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.

A truck backed through my windshield into my wife's face.

The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.

I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the

In an attempt to kill a fly I drove into a telephone pole.

I had been shopping for plants all day and was on my way home. As I reached an
intersection a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision and I did not see the other car.

I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident.

I was on the way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my universal joint gave way
causing me to have an accident.

As I approached an intersection a sign suddenly appeared in a place where no stop sign

had ever appeared before. I was unable to stop in time to avoid the accident.

To avoid hitting the bumper of the car in front I struck a pedestrian.

My car was legally parked as it backed into another vehicle.

An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished.

I told the police that I was not injured, but on removing my hat found that I had a
fractured skull.

I was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck

The pedestrian had no idea which way to run as I ran over him.

I saw a slow moving, sad faced old gentleman as he bounced off the road.

The indirect cause of the accident was a little guy in a small car with a big mouth.

I was thrown from my car as it left the road. I was later found in a ditch by some stray

The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of the way when I
struck the front end.

On The Importance of Correct Punctuation

An English professor wrote the words, "woman without her man is a savage" on the
blackboard and directed his students to punctuate it correctly.
The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is a savage."
The women wrote: "Woman: without her, man is a savage."

Dear John: I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind,
thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have
ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart.
I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours? Gloria
Dear John: I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind,
thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have
ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're
apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

Double Negative
A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he said, "A double
negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still
a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative." A
voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

Homonyms: Spell Checker

Spell Checker
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques for my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.
As swoon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it

I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

"Too" / "Nothing" / "More"


Aaron Binkley described to me an episode of Saturday Night Live where there are
two guys controlling a nuclear reactor which is running too hot. They read the
manual which says "when removing the rods, one can't remove them too quickly."
One guy takes this to mean it is not possible to remove them too quickly, but the
other insists it is warning them not to remove them very quickly. The sketch then
cuts to a view of the reactor in the distance with a mushroom cloud above it.


As described by Hill, the word "nothing" is sometimes used in "Lewis Carroll"

type jokes. For example, advertisers will often use "nothing" in the following
"Nothing works better or faster than our product."


NEW YORK, March 19 /PRNewswire/ via NewsEdge Corporation The New York State Society of CPAs (NYSSCPA) has problems
with H & R Block's current advertising campaign regarding
the filing of complex tax returns. P. Gerard Sokolski,
NYSSCPA president, believes that the ads are misleading and
detrimental to consumers.
According to Sokolski, H&R Block claims that it prepares
more complex tax returns than any CPA firm in America. When
challenged, Steven A. Christianson, H&R Block Assistant Vice
President, said that they define "complex" as individual
returns with schedules. He added that the qualification
"makes it clear that H&R Block does not purport to prepare
tax returns that are more complex than the tax returns
prepared by CPA firms."

How clever of HRB. The problem is grammatical:

adjective "more" modify "complex" or "returns"?

Does the

HRB suggests that the sentence means it files "a greater

number of complex returns" than any CPA firm (i.e., it files
"more...returns"). Given its definition of a "complex
return," that statement may be true.
However, the consumer is likely to read it as meaning that
the returns HRB files are "more complex returns" than those
filed by any CPA firm. That statement is clearly false.
This is a wonderful (and misleading) use of a grammatical

Naur Text Processing Problem

Original Statement
(Naur, Peter, "Programming by Action Clusters," BIT, vol. 9, no. 3, 1969, pp. 250-258.)

Given a text consisting of words separated by BLANKS or

NL (new-line)
characters, convert it to a line-by-line form in
accordance with the
following rules:

(1) line breaks must be made only where the given text
has BLANK or NL
(2) each line is filled as far as possible, as long as
(3) no line will contain more than MAXPOS characters.

Goodenough and Gerhart Specification

(Goodenough, John and Susan Gerhart, "Towards a Theory of Test Data Selection," IEEE
Transactions on Software Engineering, vol. 1, no. 2, June 1975, pp. 156-173.)

The program's input is a stream of characters whose end

is signaled
with a special end-of-text character, ET. There is
exactly one ET
character in each input stream. Characters are
classified as

* break characters - BL (blank) and NL (new-line);

* non-break characters - all others except ET;
* the end-of-text character - ET.

A word is a non-empty sequence of non-break characters.

A break is a
sequence of one or more break characters. Thus, the
input can be
viewed as a sequence of words separated by breaks, with
leading and trailing breaks, and ending with ET.

The program's output should be the same sequence of

words as in the

input, with the exception that an oversize word (i.e., a

containing more than MAXPOS characters, where MAXPOS is
a positive
integer) should cause an error exit from the program
(i.e., a variable,
Alarm, should have the value TRUE). Up to the point of
an error, the
program's output should have the following properties:

1. A new-line should start only between words and at the

beginning of
the output text, if any.
2. A break in the input is reduced to a single break
character in the
3. As many words as possible should be placed on each
line (i.e.,
between successive NL characters).
4. No line may contain more than MAXPOS characters
(words and BLs).

Other References
o Meyer, Bertrand, "On Formalism in Specifications," IEEE Software, Janaury
1985, pp. 6-26.

Schach, Stephen R., Classical and Object-Oriented Software Engineering, 3rd

ed., Richard Irwin, Burr Ridge, IL, 1996.

Why Ask Why?

The following are not exactly ambiguous statements, but they do represent some of the
peculiarities of both American society and words in the English language.

Why do you need a driver's license to buy liquor when you can't drink and drive?
Why is it that we pack suits in garment bags and garments in suitcases?

Why isn't phonetic spelled the way it sounds?

Why are there interstate highways in Hawaii?

Why are there flotation devices under plane seats instead of parachutes?

Why are cigarettes sold in gas stations when smoking is prohibited there?

Do you need a silencer if you are going to shoot a mime?

Have you ever imagined a world with no hypothetical situations?

How does the guy who drives the snowplow get to work in the mornings?

If 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the doors?

If a cow laughed, would milk come out her nose?

If nothing ever sticks to TEFLON, how do they make TEFLON stick to the pan?

If you tied buttered toast to the back of a cat and dropped it from a height, what would

If you're in a vehicle going the speed of light, what happens when you turn on the

You know how most packages say "Open here". What is the protocol if the package says,
"Open somewhere else"?

Why do they put Braille dots on the keypad of the drive-up ATM?

Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?

Why is brassiere singular and panties plural?

Why is it that when you transport something by car, it's called a shipment, but when you
transport something by ship, it's called cargo?

You know that little indestructible black box that is used on planes, why can't they make
the whole plane out of the same substance?

Why is it that when you're driving and looking for an address, you turn down the volume
on the radio?

Contradicting Proverbs
The following was sent to me as an email. Author unknown...
As any experienced conversationalist can tell you, ambiguity is the key to winning any argument.
Following are a few popular proverbs and counter-proverbs that will allow you to turn a
conversation in any direction you want. Who can argue with the wit and wisdom of our fore

Actions speak louder than words. The pen is mightier than the sword.
Look before you leap. He who hesitates is lost.

Many hands make light work. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Clothes make the man. Don't judge a book by its cover.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Better safe than sorry.

The bigger, the better. The best things come in small packages.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind.

What will be, will be. Life is what you make it.

Cross your bridges when you come to them. Forewarned is forearmed.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. One man's meat is another man's

With age comes wisdom. Out of the mouths of babes come all wise sayings.

The more, the merrier. Two's company; three's a crowd.

Abort, Retry, Fail?

Don Willmott's Abort, Retry, Fail? column in PC Magazine is often the source of some
ambiguous statements found in headlines and advertisements. The following represents a
collection of some of my favorites (started December 2, 1996).

A way to reuse those old floppies (July 1997, pg. 446):

"County regulations require us to serve our meals on software."

Maximize your performance:

The following is from an online product catalog from Parsons Technology (July 1997, pg.
"Check out our line of unique hardware products, designed to maximize the time you
spend with your computer."

Newspaper Headlines:

"Interactive CD-ROM Teaches Basics of Sexual Harassment," December 17,

1996, pg. 390.

Related Resources

I strongly suggest that you read the Handbook of Ambiguities in Requirements

Specifications and Legal Contracts
Saul Gorn's Compendium of Rarely Used Cliches

Dan Berry's comments on the Dangers of All and other research issues related to
ambiguity in requirements

Tom Gilb's "Twelve Tough questions" (writing requirements unambiguously)

English Grammar FAQ


Negative Polarity Items


Record Negative Field Recorded on Internet

Winograd's program for understanding natural language

Ambiguity Definition from Philosophy Encyclopedia

Consistency of Tense and Pronoun Reference

Ambiguous Sentences

Logical Fallacies
Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies
Logical Fallacies in Scientific Writing

Constructing a Logical Argument

Suggested Reading:
Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content and Style,
Chapter 15 of this book, entitled "Small Details," focuses on specific words and phrases
that can be a source of misunderstanding in requirements documents.
Exploring Requirements : Quality Before Design, Donald C. Gause, Gerald M. Weinberg.
Chapter 19 of this book discusses issues of ambiguity in requirements engineering. The
authors suggest that the level of ambiguity in requirements is an indicator of the amount
of design work remaining.

Hill, I.D., "Wouldn't it be nice if we could write computer programs in ordinary English or would it?" The Computer Bulletin, June 1972, pp. 306-312.

Neumann, Peter G., "Only his Only Grammarian Can Only Say What Only He Means,"
ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes, January 1984, pg. 6.

Last modified November 20, 2003