What has four wheels and flies?

As I left the house this morning a recycling truck went past, which was slightly strange because it’s not rubbish/recycling day, but anyway, the old riddle popped into my head:
Q – What has four wheels and flies?
A – A rubbish truck.

This riddle is based on the linguistic quirk that in English, some words can function as nouns and verbs and that plural nouns and present tense 3sg verbs both add ‘s’ to the base.

Most people, on hearing the riddle, process:
What (VP has four wheels) and (VP flies)? (An aeroplane?)

The punchline depends on the interpretation:
What has (NP four wheels) and (NP flies)?

I spent intermittent parts of the day trying to figure out why most people would process the first version, and failed.

Recently (? earlier this week/last week) a student asked me what the difference between rubbish and garbage is. In my usage, at least, rubbish is smaller than garbage – I could say to students ‘Take your rubbish with you’, but I probably wouldn’t say ‘Take your garbage with you’ (unless they’d been very messy, or had done a very, very bad job on the lesson worksheet).


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