I heard this expression (gas killing animal) on TV news, when they reported that Trump referred to Esad(syrian leader) like this in a tweet, because Esad was reported to have used a chemical gas and killed people.

Grammatically, the phrase "Gas killing animal" did not sound natural or good English to me. If I had not known about the happenings, I would have hesitated about the meaning of the structure "gas killing animal". The structure may be confusing e.g. who is killing who? Is it the animal that kills? or is it the gas that kills an animal? etc...

If we accept this structrue correct English, can I say "water killing man" if I want o refer to a man who killed another man by using water? Or can I say "medicine killing man" if I want o refer to a man who killed another man by using medicine or pills?

So, it does not sound natural to me or it somehow sounds unusual or improper English. I do not why but it just does not sound good english.

Do you feel the same and if yes, is there any other way to put it in a clearer structure where it would not cause any such confusion?

  • You are right, it's wrong. He often uses bad or poor English. And it's Assad in English, by the way. – Lambie Apr 12 '18 at 13:25

A "gas-killing animal" would be an animal that kills by gas. I suppose that if we are calling Assad an "animal" then he would be a gas-killing animal" But note that those words might appear in a sentence "The gas killing animals in Syria was Chlorine". This is ambiguous, but since Chlorine is a poison gas it would have to be understood as "the gas that is killing animals..."

This is used in some jokes: "A man-eating lion" and "A man eating beefsteak" are very different in meaning.

So I suppose "a water-killing man" could be a man who kills by water... or a man that kills water. I don't know what that actually means. I'd probably say "a man who drowns his victims" to be clearer. A "medicine killing man" is a "poisoner", or "a drug pusher" or something else.

What this shows is that "logic" has little role to play in the interpretation of natural language. Pragmatics is a key aspect of language interpretation - this means that we use the meaning of words acting together to interpret the whole. There is always a context, and the context resolves nearly all grammatical ambiguities.

You should avoid confusion. Your instinct that these phrases are ambiguous is correct. The ambiguity can sometimes be avoided, and avoiding ambiguity can improve the expression. However, an expression like "Assad is a gas-killing animal" is short and punchy. It is good for twitter, and the meaning is not very ambiguous in context.

  • 2
    If we follow the logic in "man-eating" (that which eats man), wouldn't "gas-killing" mean "that which kills gas"? – urnonav Apr 12 '18 at 14:12
  • If we were to follow that logic, then yes. But I shan't debate the place of logic in grammar here. – James K Apr 12 '18 at 14:18

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