Over the past few days, a silly riddle, the so-called “Giraffe Riddle”, has gone viral on Facebook. The riddle goes like this: “3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?”
People who never took an interest in semantics before and who only ever use the term “semantic” as an attribute of someone who is seen as a pedant, someone who over-analyses the content of everyday utterances, are these days arguing on Facebook about whether it’s logical or grammatical to say “The first thing you open is your eyes”, what the implications of present tense narration are and why, given the wording of the riddle, one or the other thing (amongst the most common suggestions being “your eyes” and “the door”) is more logical to open first.
What makes this phenomenon fascinating is not only the fact that it highlights the high potential in humans to pick fights for silly reasons or the fact that adults have forgotten to think like children and, instead of applying Occam’s razor, tend to complicate and overthink things. What is most fascinating about the phenomenon surrounding this ill-formulated riddle is the fact that it shows how difficult it is for humans to detect defective text and how easily they are ready to infer meaning from defective text, believing that such meaning is correct and making it the basis of their further reasoning.
That humans have an immense ability to correct defective text when parsing is already known (just think of the experiments showing that readers can decode English words in a text correctly even if their individual letters are completely mixed up), but defective texts are not only texts that contain obvious spelling mistakes or a screwed-up syntax. Texts which contain inconsistencies on a logical or semantic level or texts which involuntarily violate Grice’s Maxims can also be seen as defective, and this semantic defectiveness is the trickiest of all: while computers lack the ability to make sense of fuzzy text, humans quite happily delude themselves into believing that they understand it all and integrate what they think they understood into the context knowledge they need to further decode the text.
Now why is the Giraffe Riddle defective? It is defective because it violates not only Grice’s Maxims of Quantity (Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purpose of the exchange) and Manner (be clear, avoid ambiguity) but also the implicit rules and conventions that exist regarding the characteristics of different text types: the text type “riddle” requires solvability, and solvability is achieved if only one reading of a text is possible or if all possible readings of a text lead to the same conclusion. However, this is not the case at all in the Giraffe Riddle. Let’s take a closer look:
“3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?”
The question that pops into every reader’s mind is “The first thing after what?” And, of course, the text doesn’t specify this. This ambiguity itself doesn’t make the text defective. An ambiguous question, while violating Grice’s Maxims both of Manner and of Quantity, can be voluntary and even necessary for the purpose of the riddle itself. However, if this is the case, the rest of the text has to be structured in such a way that it is possible to infer beyond any doubt what the omitted piece of information must be. There can only be one possible reading of the text or, if there are several possible readings, they all have to make the same piece of information necessary in the question, or if none of this is the case, they all have to lead to the same answer regardless of what the missing piece of information in the question is. In the Giraffe Riddle, not only are there myriads of ways of reading the text, but there are also several ways of filling in the missing piece of information in the question and various ways to answer the question once the missing piece of information is found.
Now, let’s take a look at the different possible readings of the Giraffe Riddle text, concentrating on two different questions: Is the text intended to be a descriptive or a narrative text? And do the reader and the agent of the text have the same information available or is a reading possible in which the agent doesn’t know everything the reader knows, e.g. that it’s 3am or that their parents are there for breakfast or that they have strawberry jam, honey, bread, wine and cheese?
Let’s decide first whether the text is to be read as a narrative or as a descriptive text. Narrative texts are often characterised by past tense verbs and temporal adverbs and adverbials, which are used to organise the chronological progression. In the absence of these, other linguistic devices such as a clear chronological structure have to be provided to make it clear that the text is narrative. Descriptive texts, on the other hand, are characterised by simple present or past tense verbs and locative adverbs and adverbials. In narrative texts, the actions described happen one after the other as the text progresses, whereas in descriptive texts, the states described are present simultaneously. Sometimes, narrative and descriptive passages are combined in the wider context of a text. In the Giraffe Riddle, we only have one temporal adverbial, 3am, and the text is written in present tense. Due to the present tense and the absence of other temporal adverbials to structure the chronological progression, we have to assume that the text is either descriptive, describing the situation at 3 o’clock in the morning, or that – if it is a narrative text after all – it follows the chronological progression implicitly expected in narratives, i.e. that the actions occur in the same order in which they are being described.
As for the agent’s knowledge, there can be a reading of the text in which the agent doesn’t know that it is 3am and in which the agent doesn’t know what food and drink they have in their fridge; however, due to the fragment “Unexpected visitors” (which clearly refers to an expectation held by the agent and not by the reader), there is no possible reading in which the agent doesn’t know by the end of the text that it’s their parents who are there. This means that any reading in which the agent doesn’t know by the end of the text that their parents are at the door has to be ruled out.
With this knowledge in mind, let’s look at the possible readings:
Let’s assume the text is descriptive: If the text is seen as descriptive and complete in itself, the question including the omitted piece of information has to be “What is the first thing you open in this situation”, i.e., in the situation that has just been described? Here, the answer would have to be “my left eye” or “my right eye” or, if one doesn’t care about grammatical accuracy, “my eyes”. “The door” would be possible only under very strange circumstances, namely in a situation in which the agent doesn’t know that it’s 3am (or knows it but only because they have a cuckoo clock) and finds out that their parents are there without opening their eyes, e.g. by shouting through the door “Who’s here?”, while making a consistent effort to keep their eyes closed. It can, and I think it should, be argued that the term “waking up” implies the opening of one’s eyes, but since any reading that could be true in any possible world is to be considered admissible in semantics, I will accept this as a possible reading. However, the text could also be seen as descriptive with a narrative starting at the very moment the question is asked: in this case, the question would be “What is the first thing you open as a consequence of this situation?”. And here, the first thing the agent opens could be anything from the “eyes” to the “wine bottle” to an item not yet mentioned: “the eyes” if the consistent effort of not opening their eyes is maintained and the agent also knows by heart what they have in their fridge; “the door” if one assumes that the information about their parents’ being there was gained by peeping through the window or shouting through the door but without opening it; “the fridge”, “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle” or “the cheese” if it is assumed that the agent wants to get everything ready before letting their parents in; or something completely different, such as the wardrobe to take the hoover out or the window to let some fresh air in.
As we see, there are several possible readings under the assumption that the text is descriptive. But is there anything that clearly rules out a reading as a descriptive text? The only thing that could imply that the text has to be read as a narrative is the fragment “Unexpected visitors”. This phrase, which contains a surprise element and has the connotation of something being known all of a sudden, is hard to imagine as a descriptive element.
Let’s therefore take a look at what happens if we assume the text is narrative. Since there are no clear temporal markers, we have to suppose that the actions described occur in the order in which they are being mentioned:
Sentence 1: “3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up.”
“3:00 am” has to be read as a descriptive element within the wider context of this narration. It is possible that the doorbell rings and the agent wakes up independently of the doorbell, but the “and” suggests that the agent wakes up as a consequence of the doorbell’s ringing. Since a reading is possible in which the agent doesn’t know that it’s 3:00 am, nothing explicitly suggests that they open their eyes (except for what I mentioned previously regarding the implications of “waking up”).
Sentence (Fragment) 2: “Unexpected visitors.”
This fragment, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information: after waking up, the agent tries to find out who is ringing at the door, either by shouting through the door, by peeping out of the window or by opening the door, or they simply assume that if someone rings at their door they must be visitors, and they didn’t expect any. Up until this point, strictly speaking, there still isn’t anything that suggests that the agent has opened their eyes, but common sense would dictate that they have.
Sentence 3: “It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast.”
This sentence, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information too, namely that the agent has tried to find out who is at the door and why. Strictly speaking, there is still nothing that clearly suggests that they have opened their eyes or that they have opened the door, but common sense dictates that by now they have opened both their eyes and the door.
Sentence 4: ”You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese.”
This sentence, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information too, namely that the agent has tried to find out what they have in their fridge either by remembering or by going to the kitchen, opening the fridge and checking what’s in there.
It has to be noted that if the text is indeed supposed to be seen as a narrative, all the elements of narration are being left out and are only being mentioned by implication. If one doesn’t accept the implications of the sentences, by the time the narration is done, one can, strictly speaking, insist that the agent still has their eyes closed and that the door is still closed too; but to decode implicit content in a text, common sense and world knowledge have to be used, which is why, in a common sense reading, it is rather unlikely that the agent hasn’t opened their eyes as well as the door by the end of the narration. The question is how much importance one places on pragmatic aspects of a text when decoding it, and this question cannot be solved objectively.
Sentence 5: Question
In a narration, the question including the omitted piece of information has to be “What is the first thing you open then” or “What is the first thing you open after this happens”? And since we have to assume that the actions mentioned or implied occur in the order in which they are mentioned or implied, the only things the agent can open “after this happens” are new things, which haven’t been opened yet – be it explicitly or implicitly. This means that in a narrative reading that only accepts explicitly mentioned actions as having occurred, the first thing the agent opens could be anything from “the eyes” to the “wine bottle” or something that hasn’t been mentioned yet at all, and in a more common sense narrative reading which accepts the implication that to wake up one has to open one’s eyes and to find out who rings at the door one has to open the door and check, the first thing opened after the narration would have to be something new, something that hasn’t been opened yet, e.g. “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle”, “the cheese” or the window to let some fresh air in.
Depending on whether we read the text as a narrative or as a descriptive text and depending on whether we deem some of the information to be known by both the reader and the agent of the text or to be known only by the reader but not by the agent, we can allow different items to be the first thing the agent opens: “the eyes”, “the door”, “the fridge”, “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle”, “the cheese” or something else. This means that the riddle is not solvable and doesn’t fulfill its function as a riddle. The information given in the text prior to the question is not clear and allows various different readings. While this wouldn’t be a big deal in a text of the type “poem” or “fantasy story”, in a text of the type “riddle” it is. If a text violates Grice’s Maxims in the very build up to the question which has to be answered on its basis, it doesn’t fulfill its solvability function and is therefore defective.