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"John threw Mama from the train a kiss." This statement is used as an example of poor syntax. It sounds as if John threw Mama off the train, followed by a kiss. How would one arrange this statement into a syntax that expresses John's action correctly?

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This is a joke, whose reference is to the syntax of German-speaking immigrants.

Throw papa down the stairs his hat.

From the train, John threw a kiss to mama.

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    Cool, never heard about that. It turns out there was even a song "Mama From The Train". Not to mention the movie with DeVito. Nov 14, 2014 at 16:45
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    @CopperKettle Great link! Loved the line, "Don't leave her hungry behind."
    – JimM
    Nov 14, 2014 at 20:01
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    @CopperKettle: Some of us live in Pennsylvania and know all kinds of cool things about the so-called "Pennsylvania Dutch" :-) Since we're talking about a movie here, I'll recommend Peter Weir's film, Witness. Nov 15, 2014 at 10:42
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You can rearrange the words, or change the words (as one answer does) to make many different sentences with non-poor syntax.

The question is What do you want the sentence to mean?

When you know that, you can rightly order the words

Since John is the one doing the action, per the last sentence of the OP, then my favorite is

John threw the train a kiss from Mama.

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  • Fruit flies like a banana.
    – bmargulies
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:23
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John threw a kiss to his mama/mother on the train.

Assuming this isn't a reference to the movie, "Throw Mama from the Train"

Throw a kiss <-- generally means to kiss the palm of your hand and figuratively toss it to the recipient.

Looking at TRomanos answer and rereading the OP's sentence, it is a bit ambiguous who is on the train because of the syntax. To me, it looks as though Mama is on the train. "...Mama from the train..." and your follow up statement, "It sounds as if John threw Mama off the train" makes me believe so.

Where TRomano's answer suggests that John is on the train. "From the train, John threw a kiss to mama."

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  • Good point about the ambiguity of whether John or Mama was on the train. I had assumed John was on the train.
    – JimM
    Nov 14, 2014 at 15:28
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    If Mama was on the train it would be "John threw Mama (who was) on the train a kiss.", which doesn't sound natural and everything (without the who was), but the 'from' construction is hardly ambiguous. Nov 14, 2014 at 18:05
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    Given that the syntax is incorrect to begin with I don't think you can rightfully say that it is not ambiguous. Especially without punctuation.
    – David
    Nov 14, 2014 at 18:11

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