How to make jokes with a dangling modifier

Call it lame, but to me word play is king when it comes to jokes. Groucho Marx was a master at it. Especially when it came to exploiting the dangling modifier. I could go all technical on this, but instead I’ll just cite one of Marx’s classics, from Animal Crackers (1930), where as Captain Spaulding he’s recounting his adventures in Africa:

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I don’t know.”

It’s funny because the first sentence says something very different from what we might assume at first glance, but we don’t notice until the literal meaning is pointed out in the next sentence. There were a lot of other gags of similar nature through the script, which was written not by Marx, but by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and George S. Kaufman.

The joke comes from a grammar error. the ‘dangling modifier’ – meaning a phrase that modifies the subject of the sentence, but which is in the wrong place and consequently leaves the meaning ambiguous. In this case, it’s deliberate. The subject of the sentence is ‘I shot an elephant’, meaning the speaker; and ‘in my pyjamas’ is the modifier, applied to the speaker. However, because it’s placed after ‘an elephant’, it modifies that instead, so it’s telling us that the elephant was the one in the shooter’s pyjamas. Oops. What the sentence should say is:

“One morning, while wearing my pyjamas, I shot an elephant”.

But then, of course, it wouldn’t be funny. As, of course, Kalmar, Ruby, Kaufman and Marx knew very well (and so too, I suppose, did all his brothers – Chico, Gummo, Zeppo, Harpo and Karl). The thing is that it’s all too easy to create dangling modifiers, because you – as writer – know what you mean, and when you come to re-read and edit the sentence, you still know what you mean, so it goes unnoticed. Half the time it’s also missed by readers, in the sense that they ‘get’ the intended meaning. But sometimes it takes a bit to parse it, which isn’t optimal.

So the real lesson here is to avoid dangling modifiers, unless you’re making a joke – in which case you’ll probably need one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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11 thoughts on “How to make jokes with a dangling modifier

    1. My school grammar classes were ENTIRELY dusty and boring (as was the literature – the teacher even managed to make Catch 22 uninteresting, if you can imagine that)… I learned about the dangling modifier much later! 🙂

  1. If I could intentionally do that I would be a comic. Hopefully I don’t do that inadvertently in or out of my pajamas. LOL! Thanks for the interesting post, Matthew! 😃

    1. I once rode an elephant in my jeans. What the elephant was doing wearing my jeans I have no idea… Not entirely a joke – this was in Thailand, and actually the elephant knew very well what it was doing, which was carrying me, astride its neck, to the place where it knew it would get fed by the schmuck on its shoulders – and I can’t describe how scary the hillsides are that elephants can climb, but I trusted it – the fact that it was both smart and as self-aware as I am was pretty obvious early on. This was in the jungle, and I was impressed by the attitude of the Thais caring for the herd – they had to use tourist dollars like mine to keep things going, but were doing their best to give the elephants the best and most natural life they could, around that practical reality.

      1. Funny story, Matthew! Love elephants but never rode on one. Like them from a distance or in a book like my book, Louey the Lazy Elephant! You are a brave soul! Must have been quite an experience – one you will never forget! Thanks for sharing. 😀

  2. So nice to see this homage to the greatest- Groucho! Not a dangling participle – While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.

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