time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana

Discussion in 'English Only' started by nuruemp, Jul 5, 2005.

  1. nuruemp

    nuruemp Member

    Spain, Spanish
    Hi all, I don't get this joke... Can anyone explain it to me?

  2. Aupick

    Aupick Senior Member

    Strasbourg, France
    UK, English
    The humour comes from the fact that the two sentences look like they follow the same construction, but in fact don't:

    time flies like an arrow = time (n.) flies (vb.) like (adj.) an (art.) arrow (n.) = time passes in the manner of an arrow

    fruit flies like a banana = fruit (n.) flies (n.) like (vb.) a (art.) banana (n.) = the insects known as 'fruit flies' have a penchant for banana

  3. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    In the first, "flies" is clearly a verb, and like is a descriptor: time does fly as an arrow does.
    in the second, "fruit flies" is the noun in the sentence, while like is the verb: little insects enjoy a banana.

    The joke is in the unexpected shift of the parts of speech.
  4. nuruemp

    nuruemp Member

    Spain, Spanish
    Thank you a lot! :D
  5. Edwin

    Edwin Senior Member

    Tampa, Florida, USA
    USA / Native Language: English
    This is a famous example in the area of Natural Language Processing It illustrates the difficulty of getting a computer to deal with natural language.

    I have noticed that some of the online machine translators do a good job with both of these sentences. I suspect that they were put in separately and are not a part of the general program.
  6. stevenpn New Member

    USA English
    I actually have a different take on what Groucho Marx meant by this statement. I don't think he was referring to fruit flies, the insect. He set up the one-liner with an obvious truism, "time flies," and followed it up with an ironic spin-off, namely that fruit flies. How does it fly? "Well, I don't know...uh, like a banana...." This isn't an uncommon formula, and if you don't see the humor in it, that's just because it really isn't all that funny. Groucho did much better than this in his one-liners (e.g. "I'd never join a club that would have me as a member," or "I've had a lovely evening, but this wasn't it"); even he couldn't hit them all out of the park. Got to love him, though.
  7. Franzi Senior Member

    Astoria, NY
    (San Francisco) English
    I disagree. Twisting language like this (if he means the insect) is very typical of his humor:

    "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
    "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."
  8. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    English English
    I totally agree, Franzi.
  9. moonshark New Member

    Aupick, Kelly B, and others, are correct. Groucho was definitely referring to "fruit flies" the flying insects. What he is doing here, ladies and gentlemen, is what is called "Syntactic ambiguity" and it's a classic technique of humorists. It also happens quite frequently by accident.

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