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“Time flies like an arrow” is often cited to illustrate problems with computer aided language processing. It is also an example of how ambiguous English can be.

But is it really so ambiguous? How would it be understood by a native speaker?

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    There's a particular kind of insects, so called "time flies", that express strong sympathy to the arrows. :) – bytebuster Jan 23 '13 at 21:07
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    If the native speaker has been corrupted by the linguistic study of grammars, there are many possible ambiguities to be discovered. But "the man in the street" wouldn't have a problem with this idiom. – barbara beeton Jan 23 '13 at 22:15
  • @bytebuster No, 'an arrow'. There's only one. For all the flies. – mcalex Jan 24 '13 at 16:18
  • FWIW, there are 9 possible interpretations listed in Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…). – GreenAsJade Sep 13 '14 at 8:07
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The sentence 'Time flies like an arrow', with or without context, is very unambiguous to the native speaker. 'Time' is the subject, it metaphorically 'flies' as fast and without stopping 'like an arrow.

But the phrase is often accompanied, either before or after, by

Fruit flies like a banana.

which is word-for-word parallel, but not exactly by part of speech. The parallelism is both strange and funny on its own (it makes banana seem to fly, as a fruit, in the manner of the arrow), but also reflects on the pair 'time flies' (which are presumably a strange kind of fly).

Time flies like an arrow

Time (Subject) flies (verb) like an arrow (prepositional phrase modifying 'flies')

Fruit flies like a banana

Fruit flies (subject) like (verb) a banana (object).

But with respect to the other sentence one could say

Fruit (subject) flies (verb) like a banana (prepositional phrase).

It is this sentence that is the most ambiguous. not the 'time flies' sentence.

The latter parsing is not at all expected and so would not be understood naturally by a native speaker.

  • I was under the impression that the second, confounding, phrase, "fruit flies like a banana." is/was a Groucho Marx-ism. I'm surprised not to see him credited anywhere. – user706 Feb 20 '13 at 5:35
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    According to Wikipedia, "[t]he saying is sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx, but according to The Yale Book of Quotations there is no reason to believe Groucho actually said [it]." See the link for further details. – snailcar Feb 20 '13 at 5:39
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    The point is not that either sentence is ambiguous, but rather that the two use the same words -- "flies" and "like" -- with different definitions, and so they APPEAR to have the same structure, when in fact they do not. – Jay Jun 13 '14 at 13:35
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    Very nice answer: it is true that native speakers understand what the phrase means unambiguously, while at the same time this is one of the most ambiguous phrases known in English. It has its own section in Wikipedia, where there are 9 possible interpretations given. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Some of them make even a native speaker have to think hard to understand, but they are all valid interpretations, grammatically. – GreenAsJade Sep 13 '14 at 7:58
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Time flies like an arrow. is an old idiom that means time passes quickly, subjectively. Hurry up with your life because it will end before you notice.

Now the pun and the problem:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

No, there are no insects named "time flies". But there are very common insects called Fruit flies. The tiny insects appear almost magically on any less-than-fresh fruit, and definitely speed up the process of rotting. Bananas, which go bad exceptionally quickly are one of their favorite foods.

(One interesting note: They are also a favorite target of study of genetics, with a 4-day life cycle and a set of very distinct features.)

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The confusion in language processing comes because software might not catch the dual meaning of like in the full sentence (Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.).

I am not a native speaker, but I assume most people would understand it unambiguously: something abstract, such as time, or a non-rational entity, like a fruit, can not "like" something.

There are many possible - some rather contrived - interpretations of the full sentence, but most speakers would not have difficulties understanding it.

  • Okay, that wiki link... This is an interesting topic, but I think that with the Time magazine references they're stretching it a bit far!! At any rate, +1. Great explanation. – WendiKidd Feb 5 '13 at 2:34
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Is it really so ambiguous?

There are many possible interpretations of the sentence

Time flies like an arrow.

Here are some of the more obvious ones:

  • Time passes quickly, as an arrow flies quickly through the air
  • You should time the speed of flies in the same manner as you would time the speed of an arrow
  • You should time the speed of flies in the same manner as an arrow would time the speed of flies.
  • You should quickly time the speed of flies, as an arrow flies quickly through the air

How would it be understood by a native speaker?

Time flies like an arrow would be understood by native speakers to mean "time passes quickly, as an arrow flying through the air goes quickly".

This particular meaning is due (in my opinion) to these reasons:

  • "Time flies" is a common idiom meaning "time passes quickly".
  • Similes are a common part of speech, so "like an arrow" is a reasonable way to understand the second part of the sentence, especially given that arrows do indeed "fly" through the air.
  • Further, to say that something "flew like an arrow" is not an uncommon way of saying that something flew straight and true towards a target.
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At the heart of English grammar is the relationship of subject + verb (or SV). I suspect that native English speakers are primed to recognise and process that relationship until something else occurs which forces another understanding. In 'Time flies like an arrow', 'Time' can easily be S and 'flies' can easily be V. In 'Fruit flies like a banana', 'Fruit' starts off being S and 'flies' V, but then things go awry, forcing a re-evaluation: 'Fruit' becomes a noun modifier, 'Fruit flies' a subject NP and 'like' the verb. Now, 'Fruit flies' is just as much a subject as 'Time' is, but it takes (very, very slightly) more processing time to recognise it as such, so native speakers first prefer 'Fruit' as the subject, and not 'Fruit flies'.

  • hmmm looks like a backreferrence in regex ;) – Danubian Sailor Jun 13 '14 at 11:56

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