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In Chinese, there is no space between words (groups of characters). I have heard that most of the time there is no confusion possible. But is there any Chinese sentence where there are multiple ways to group characters together, thus providing multiple meanings?

Such a sentence (if it exists) should be qualified as non-associative.


Clarification

According the answers below, I should make some clarifications about what is asked in this post: it is not really about finding a sentence having several possible punctuations providing different meaning. By a "group of characters" I don't mean characters between two successives punctuations, but I just mean a word. Consider the following generic Chinese sentence (where ▢ represents a character):

▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢▢...

Then group the characters to make words into a meaningful sentence, for example:

[▢▢▢][▢▢][▢▢▢▢][▢▢][▢][▢▢▢][▢]...

where each [▢...▢] is a single word. Then we are looking for a sentence where there is an other meaningful way to group the characters, for example:

[▢▢][▢▢▢▢][▢][▢▢▢][▢][▢▢][▢▢▢]...

providing an other meaning.

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  • 下雨天留客天天留我不留。民可使由之不可使知之。
    – joehua
    Dec 14, 2021 at 11:04
  • Isn't punctuation a way of grouping words?
    – joehua
    Dec 17, 2021 at 1:03
  • @joehua Sure but I don't ask about words grouping, but characters grouping into words. Dec 17, 2021 at 2:27

6 Answers 6

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This sentence appears in the Analects of Confucius. It has stirred up controversies over the past 2,500 years. The first way of punctuation is deemed against Confucius' ideology. So spawns different ways of punctuation.

民可使由之,不可使知之。 People can be sent away to do things but don't let them know why they do it. Basically, people are ordered to do things. No questions asked.

民可,使由之,不可,使知之。 For those capable people, let them do whatever they want to. Otherwise, educate them.

民可使,由之,不可使,知之。 If people can be ordered to do what you want them to do, let them do it. Otherwise, educate them.

民可使,由之不可;使知之。 People can be sent away for things but can't let them do whatever they want to. They need to be educated.

民可使由之?不。可使知之。 Can people be allowed to do whatever they want to? No. They need to be educated.

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Sometimes the start and end of words can overlap ambiguously (however when spoken, the speaker will pause to indicate word boundaries):

他经常教课,每一个星期二十次。 (He often teaches class, 10 times every Tuesday.)
他经常教课,每一个星期二十次。 (He often teaches class, 20 times every week.)

爱上一个女人。 (I fell in love with a woman.)
我爱上一个女人。 (I love the last woman.)

它是一个人不喜欢的活动。 (It is an activity disliked by people.)
它是一个人不喜欢的活动。 (It is an activity disliked by one person.)

一点点就好。 (A little is fine.)
一点点就好。 (Ordering at one o'clock is fine.)

My teacher sent me this funny one:

我是数学王子秦老师! 秦老师,你好! 我姓王。 不好意思,王老师

我是数学王子秦老师! (I am the mathematics prince, Teacher Qin!)
我是数学王子秦老师! (I am the mathematics teacher Wang Ziqin!)

And, of course, there's the hilarious:

先进性教育 (cutting-edge education)
先进性教育 (advanced sexual education)

And the often mistranslated:

小心地滑 (caution: slippery floor)
小心地 (slip cautiously)

Non-associativity-based ambiguity is often seen in sentences using 和:

妈妈不允许和他出去玩。 (Mother does not let me go out and play with him.)
妈妈不允许我和他出去玩。 (Mother does not let me nor him go out and play.)

This ambiguity is also one of the reasons why we avoid using double-的:

黑色的包里的书是我的。 (The book in the black bag is mine.)
黑色的包里的书是我的。 (The black book in the bag is mine.)

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I used this example in my answer to another question 下雨天留客天留人不留

下雨天留客,天留人不留。 It is raining as if heaven is keeping the guest here. Even heaven is keeping the guest here, this person (the host) does not

下雨天, 留客天, 留人不? 留! It is a rainy day, a day to keep your guest, do I keep the guest? Yes, I do

The story:

A guest was annoying the host. The host eventually asked him to leave. As the guest left, it rained. It is not kind to kick people out when it is raining outside, But the host has had enough of this guest, so he wrote 下雨天留客 天留人不留 on paper to show he didn't care it was raining, he wanted the guest to go. The man saw the writing and noticed there were no punctuation marks, so he add some to it and changed the wringing to 下雨天, 留客天, 留人不? 留! And thanked the host for kindly keeping him

Edit:

Now some practical examples:

有[才能][才能]當這職位 = have [ability] [only then can] hold this job

[傷心地]離開這個[傷心地] = [sorrowly] leave this [sad place]

[去向]他追債後不知[去向] = [went to] him to correct a debt. Then no one knows his [whereabout]

見園中花草了[無生氣],老爺大為[生氣]地責駡園丁 = Seeing that the flowers and plants in the garden were [lifeless], the master scolded the gardener [angrily]

The above example illustrated many characters have multi-functions. Depending on their position in a sentence, the same characters can mean completely different things

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Here are some jokes based on the different ways of grouping words:

  • 欢迎新老师生前来就餐
    • 欢迎/新老/师生/前来就餐
    • 欢迎/新老师/生前/来就餐
  • 武汉市长江大桥欢迎您
    • 武汉市/长(cháng)江大桥/欢迎您
    • 武汉/市长(zhǎng)/江大桥/欢迎您
  • 举报毒品违法犯罪活动有奖
    • 举报 / 毒品 违法犯罪活动 / 有奖
    • 举报毒品 违法 / 犯罪活动 有奖
  • 广州市人和母猪配种基地
    • 广州市 / 人和(a town in Guangdong) / 母猪 配种 基地
    • 广州市 / 人 和 母猪 / 配种 基地
  • 小偷在上海被捕时高喊道:“我一定要当上海贼王!”
    • 我/一定要/当/上海/贼王!
    • 我/一定要/当上/海贼王!
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護士見病人飲酒,勸道:「小心肝。」
病人答道:「小寶貝。」

護士:小心-肝 watch out for your liver.
病人:小-心肝 little darling.

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The same as the English, a sentence can be manipulated by the "punctuations", so does Chinese.

下雨天, 留客天, 天留, 我不留。On a rainy day, it's an occasion that people should kindly ask the guest to stay, now the sky is offering for the guest to stay (by raining), but I'm not willing to offer the guest to stay.

下雨天, 留客天, 天留我不? 留。On a rainy day, it's an occasion that people should kindly ask the guest to stay, Is the sky willing/offering me to stay? Yes (answer from the sky).

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