Linguistic humor, Three words in -gry, Answer

The third word is language. But language doesn't end in -gry, you protest? Well, the -gry riddle actually contains two (unfair) tricks.

Let's take a closer look at the original formulation. To facilitate the discussion, I've labeled the sentences.

(1) a. Think of words ending in -gry.
b. Angry and hungry are two of them.
(2) a. There are only three words in the English language.
b. What is the third word?
c. The word refers to something that everybody uses every day.
d. If you have listened carefully, I've already told you what it is.

The first unfair trick that the riddle plays on us is to take advantage of a very powerful implicit convention concerning language use—namely, that consecutive sentences of a discourse concern the same topic unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. This convention leads us to believe that (1a,b) and (2a–d) concern the same topic—namely, words ending in -gry.. Thus, we naturally interpret words in (2a), word in (2b,c), and it in (2d) to refer to 'word(s) ending in -gry.' However, the unfair poser of the riddle has, unbeknownst to us, switched topics on us after (1b). The sentences in (1) concern words in -gry, whereas those in (2) concern the words in the phrase the English language.

To further confuse us, the poser of the riddle deliberately gives us no indication that they mean the phrase the English language rather than the English language (the language itself, not the phrase referring to it). Language has the interesting property that it can be used to talk about language itself. In order to avoid confusion concerning using language to talk about language, philosophers have introduced a distinction between object language and metalanguage. Object language is language as an object of discussion. Thus, object language is on a par with trees, birds, and other objects in the world that we can discuss. Metalanguage is language used to discuss object language. Now, the use of metalanguage is conventionally indicated by special means, such as special intonation in speech, or special typographic conventions such as italics or quotation marks in writing. Thus, the sentences in (3) are true, but those in (4) are not.

(3) a.   The English language contains at least one verb.
b.   The English language consists of three words.
(4) a.   The English language contains at least one verb.
b.   The English language consists of three words.

By not following these conventions concerning the object/metalanguage distinction, the poser of the riddle has played a second trick on us.

If you are like me, when you find out that the riddle plays two tricks on you, you are not amused at all!

Disappointed that the riddle doesn't have a solution of the type you anticipated? If so, click here.