How would a native speaker understand “Time flies like an arrow”?

“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?


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.

Source : Link , Question Author : Danubian Sailor , Answer Author : Mitch

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