An anfibología/amphibology, also called an amphiboly in English, is ‘a phrase or sentence that can be understood in two ways.’ A Spanish-language Wikipedia article on anfibología gives several examples, the first of which is:

Mi padre fue al pueblo de José en su coche.

The English version would be equally amphibolous:

My father went to José’s town in his car.

Did the traveling take place in the father’s car or in José’s car?

Here’s another Spanish example:

Autos usados en venta: ¿irá a cualquier otro lugar adonde lo engañarán? ¡Venga con nosotros primero!
Used cars for sale: why go somewhere else where they’ll cheat you? Come to us first!*

As is often the case, the Internet offers many more examples in English than in Spanish. You can see a bunch of good ones at Sandy LaFave’s website. One classic amphiboly not mentioned there is from the Marx Brothers’ movie Animal Crackers, in which Groucho says: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” From the same movie, but not as well known, is this amphiboly: “I was outside the cabin smoking some meat. There wasn’t a cigar store in the neighborhood!”

As for the origin of anfibología/amphibology, it comes from Late Latin amphibologia, from Latin amphibolia, from Greek amphibolos ‘ambiguous.’ The Greek adjective was a compound of amphi-, which meant ‘both’ or ‘on both sides,’ and the root of ballein ‘to throw.’ Figuratively speaking, when a phrase or statement is amphibolous, its meaning gets thrown to one side or the other.


* This reminds me that a candidate for office in Austin some years ago adopted the unfortunate campaign slogan “For a little less corruption.”

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rsmease
    May 22, 2013 @ 10:20:50

    I read this post while on my iPhone. Don’t worry, it didn’t crack.


  2. Donald Levesque
    May 22, 2013 @ 14:25:55

    Muy chistoso. Gracias.



  3. Juan
    May 22, 2013 @ 17:33:45

    If you want to read a truly funny monument to amphibology in Spanish, see this post about a commercial sign in Trinidad, Cuba…


  4. shoreacres
    May 22, 2013 @ 22:12:09

    And, as a nod to current headlines, we have this example taken from the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Amphiboly as fallacy – who knew?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 23, 2013 @ 03:03:19

      A timely reference, indeed. Somehow I didn’t remember that section of the 5th Amendment. I wonder if the amphiboly it contains has ever been the subject of a legal dispute, as certain other phrases in the Constitution have been.


      • Juan
        May 23, 2013 @ 03:46:06

        I understand that if the words “or in the militia” were not between commas the expression would be ambiguous, but there is no actual amphiboly since those commas (especially the second one) solve it: the exception attaches both to army and militia. I do not know the U.S. jurisprudence body, but I think common sense and the in dubio pro reo principle also point that way: if there is any doubt, law must be interpreted in the culprit’s behalf, so members of the land or naval forces should not be excluded from a grand jury’s protection when accused of a capital crime.


  5. kathryningrid
    May 27, 2013 @ 23:38:12

    Another wonderfully entertaining trick performed by speakers/writers of many languages. I, for one, just want to know if Jose’s village is *in* his car, but maybe that’s simply my dyslexia talking.


  6. Juan
    May 28, 2013 @ 11:22:11



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