“How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Funny Misplaced Modifiers
September 4, 2009

Grammar Girl here.

Today, Bonnie Trenga is going to help us take a break from serious grammar and instead delve into the world of comedy—some intentional, some not. Groucho Marx said it best: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know” (1). I’m sure you thought that was funny, but did you ever consider why it’s hilarious?

Prepositional Phrases and Misplaced Modifiers

You’ve probably heard the term “misplaced modifier” before. It refers to a phrase or clause that “acts on something other than what the writer intended …. The modifier is in the wrong position relative to what it should be affecting” (2). In this show, we’ll explore the world of misplaced prepositional phrases, a kind of misplaced modifier. A modifier is a phrase or clause that describes something. A prepositional phrase is a short phrase that begins with a preposition. Prepositions include “in,” “at,” and “through.” A prepositional phrase gets misplaced when the writer puts in next to the wrong word.

Groucho’s joke is funny for the same reason that this real classified ad, laughed at in the book Sin and Syntax, is: “FOR SALE: Mahogany table by a lady with Chippendale legs” (3). Both sentences contain a misplaced prepositional phrase. Groucho intentionally put the phrase “in my pajamas” next to the word “elephant” to create the funny image of an elephant wearing PJs. Of course, the man, not the pachyderm, was wearing PJs. In the classified ad, the table, not the lady, has Chippendale legs. The writer carelessly put the prepositional phrase “with Chippendale legs” in the wrong place. Oops!

Some More Laughs

If only all writers could be as careful with their prepositional phrases as Groucho was. He put his in the wrong place on purpose to make us laugh. Many writers, though, unintentionally become comedians when they put their phrases in the wrong spot. A quick look at some grammar resources reveals that students, newspapers, and books are not taking as much care with prepositional phrases as they should. Here are three examples of what you should not write. Sin and Syntax, which gave us the Chippendale legs mishap earlier, also quotes a student who once wrote this: “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope” (4). This amusing sentence suggests that Lincoln traveled on the back of an envelope instead of wrote on the back of an envelope.

Also worth a few chuckles is this headline, quoted in Barbara Walraff’s book Word Court: “Two Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Counter” (5). So these ladies spent 18 years at checkout? Hmm. Last, we have this incorrect sentence, found in the latest novel by a New York Times best-selling author: “We found the address he gave me without difficulty” (6). I’m glad it wasn’t difficult to give out the address. Here, the prepositional phrase “without difficulty” has been misplaced. It’s next to “gave me” instead of “found.”

Why We Make This Mistake

As you can see, even the best of us misplace our prepositional phrases. When we’re writing complex sentences, it’s easy to inadvertently put our phrases next to the wrong word. We sometimes make errors with our prepositional phrases because we are trying to join up too many ideas at once.

The Gettysburg sentence was caused by overcramming. It would be better to make the “Lincoln” sentence two sentences: “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg. He didn’t have any paper on hand, so he wrote the speech on the back of an envelope.” That sounds much better.

Most of the time, though, misplaced prepositional phrases happen simply because writers are careless. That seems to be the case with the sentence about the street address. The writer just wasn’t paying attention to the sentence structure.

Solution to the Problem

It’s easy to fix overly long sentences: just make them shorter! In all seriousness, though, if you are writing a sentence and are having trouble fitting together all the components, consider making your enormous sentence two more manageable sentences. Check out Chapter 6 of Bonnie’s book The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier for some suggestions on how to tame overly long sentences.

As for dealing with carelessness, we’re all careless at times, so just remember to proofread yourself or have a friend or co-worker watch your back. Most important, though, when you see a prepositional phrase, make sure it is right next to what it modifies. You don’t want to inadvertently put an elephant into anyone’s pajamas. Thanks, Groucho, for the grammar lesson!

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I’m Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.


1. Bartlett, John. Kaplan, Justin, Ed. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1992, p 693.
2. Stilman, A. Grammatically Correct. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004, p. 233.
3. Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax. New York, Broadway Books, 1991, pp. 178-8.
4. Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax. New York, Broadway Books, 1991, pp. 178-8.
5. Walraff, Barbara. Word Court. Orlando: Harcourt, 2000, pp. 291-4.
6. Trenga, Bonnie. “Criminal Sentence 222,” Sentence Sleuth Blog. May 28, 2009, http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com/2009/05/criminal-sentence-222-placing.html. (accessed July 21, 2009).

The whole hog was eaten by me.

Three voices in English joke.
How to Use the Passive Voice Correctly

 from Grammarly Blog

First, let’s start with an explanation of what passive voice is. Passive voice sentences mention the thing or person receiving an action before mentioning the action itself, and may omit the actor altogether. For example, consider this sentence:

The leaves were blown by the wind.

The leaves receive the action of being blown. In the example, the agent is specified with the preposition by. However, the agent could have been left out of the sentence: The leaves were blown.

When is it proper to use passive voice? Consider these instances. Why do you suppose passive voice is appropriate? Check your answers below.

  • My camera was stolen from my locker at school.
  • A candle will be lit at the memorial service for the fallen soldier.
  • Diets are made to be broken.
  • The sodium hydroxide solution was heated to 200 degrees.


  • Who stole the camera? The agent is unknown. If you do not know who committed an action, it is appropriate to use passive voice.
  • Who do you want to receive the attention? If you prefer the attention to be on the action itself (the candle being lit) and not the person doing the lighting, you may omit the agent.
  • You are expressing a general truth that is applicable to many. Using active voice to express this idea would be awkward: People who make diets make them to be broken.
  • Researchers often use passive voice in scientific reports. It is assumed that the reader knows that the experimenters are performing the actions without stating this fact explicitly. But, according to the University of Toronto, this trend is on the decline. Recent papers tend to contain more examples of active voice.
  • Is it who or whom?

    from Grammarly Blog

    Grammar Basics: How to Use “Whom”

    Whom is not a subject. Whom is a direct object of a verb.
    Whom is one of the most confusing pronouns. Many people wonder how to use it. Is it a subject? Is it an object? Here are the simple answers.

    • Whom is not a subject.
    • Whom can be the direct object of a verb.
    • Whom did the waiter serve first? (The waiter served whom first?)
    • Whom is also used in a relative clause that describes a noun that is an object.

    *The company hired the musician whom I recommended.

    • Whom can serve as the object of a preposition.

    *With whom does Belinda plan to go to the dance?

    *The man from whom Alexis received the letter works at the supermarket.

    • In casual speech and writing, people usually use who even when whom is technically correct. If you are still a little confused, try the substitution trick to determine whether to use who or whom. Mentally answer whom questions with the pronouns “him” or “her.”

    *To whom does this pen belong? The pen belongs to him. This response makes sense, so whom is correct.

    *Whom is coming to the party on Saturday? Her is coming. This reply does not sound right. You should replace whom with who.

    Do you know how to use who, that, or which correctly?

    that or which?

    Image Credit

    In my writing classes, students often want to know the rules about when to use whothat, and which in a sentence. I tell them that confusion about using these is not uncommon, and I begin my explanation with a discussion of the differences between who and that/which.

    Use who when referring to a person. Consider this example: The boy who is at the end of the line should come to the front now. Use that or which only when referring to places or things. Take these examples: The sandwich that he ate was delicious. or The sandwich, which I ate yesterday, was delicious. Obviously, we would never say the sandwich who; nor should we say the boy that (although using that when referring to a person—particularly in conversation—is one of the more common grammatical mistakes).

    Once they understand how to use who, that, and which correctly, many people still are confused about whether they should use that or which when referring to places or things. To understand which one is the correct choice, though, you first need to know the difference between a restrictive clause and a nonrestrictive clause.

    A restrictive clause is a part of the sentence (a clause) that is essential to its meaning. For instance, in the previous example (The sandwich that he ate was delicious.), the clause that he ate is needed because I want my reader to know that we are not just talking about any sandwich; we are talking about the one that the boy ate. So, we use the word “that” to begin a clause that is essential if we are to understand the meaning of the sentence.

    A nonrestrictive clause is one that adds more information to a sentence, but this information does not need to be there for us to understand the sentence’s meaning. And, to introduce an inessential, nonrestrictive clause, we use the word “which.” Consider, again, the example above: The sandwich, which I ate yesterday, was delicious. As the author of this sentence, I want to use the word “which” because the clause which I ate yesterday is additional information that is not critical to understanding the sentence, and I can take it out without changing the meaning.

    We would use the word “who” to begin a nonrestrictive clause when we are referring to a person (e.g., The boy, who walked home yesterday, was happy.) Who walked home yesterday, the nonrestrictive clause, can be removed from the sentence, and it still would make sense.

    Sometimes, though, our use of that or which depends on the meaning we intend. For instance, if I write The sandwich that I ate yesterday was delicious., I am using that because it is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If, say, previously I have mentioned something about a sandwich I ate today, which was not delicious, and I want to compare it to the one I ate yesterday, then that I ate yesterday is a necessary (restrictive) clause if you are to understand the comparison I am making.

    Or, if I write Yesterday I rode the bus that is blue, by using that and not which I am suggesting there are other buses that are not blue. So, my next sentence could be Today, I rode the bus that is pink.

    One last point is that we need to place commas at the beginning and at the end of a nonrestrictive clause, but we never use commas around a restrictive clause. Here are a few examples:

    • The girl, who is wearing green, came to school late.
    • Our car, which is black, is very dirty after the snowstorm.
    • The glasses, which I bought at Target, will be perfect for the holidays.
    • BUT NOT The sandwich, that I ate, was delicious.

    So now you know.

    The singular “they”

    When I was a middle schooler I learned that you should never use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. Doing so could brand you a grammar ignoramus, which for Mr. Swenson, my 7th grade English teacher, was a fate almost worse than death.

    According to Arika Okrent in “4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don’t Need to Worry About,” (Mental Floss),

    [t]he rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

    To avoid the “cumbersome ‘he or she,'” many of us alternated their use, as in this example: “If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me. Even better, she should complain to the director.” This approach, though, is nothing if not awkward—and confusing. Now, however, it appears we can use “they” with impunity; the Washington Post says so, and, at the American Dialect Society’s 2015 annual meeting, “they” was named “word of the year.”

    Still, I don’t know if I will be able to make the switch. In a conversation yesterday, I heard myself say something like, “Anyone can take the class if they think it will help them.” Immediately Mr. Swenson’s face appeared before me, and he was not happy.


    Hi, comma

    Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, writes this:

    Technically, those e-mail messages you write should begin Hi, John—with a comma after Hi.

    You see, Hi, John is different from Dear John because hi and dear are not the same kind of word. Hi is an interjection just like wow and ugh, and dear is an adjective that modifies John.

    In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of “direct address” apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking?

    You can end Hi, John with a period or, if you continue the sentence, a comma.

    So now you know.


    “If you cook Elmer will do the dishes.”


    As you can see from the sentence in the headline, which appears in Hacker and Sommers’s Rules for Writers (7th edition), a missing comma can make for some pretty funny reading—even if we didn’t intend to be amusing.

    For some people, though, commas are no laughing matter. Not long ago a friend of mine cried as she told me her tale of comma woe (which involved a mean-spirited professor, a red pen, and a classroom full of laughing students).

    The rules regarding comma use are finite and are not too difficult to learn, though. Below are a few rules you might find especially helpful:


    Use a comma between all items in a series (known as the Oxford, or serial, comma). Although some argue that a comma before the last item in a series is not necessary or, as might be the opinion of a newspaper editor, takes up too much space, I use it because it makes clear what otherwise might be confusing.

    • CORRECT: I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty (from Grammarly).
    • UH-UH: I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.


    Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (think FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) ONLY when what follows that conjunction is a complete sentence with a subject and a verb (an independent clause).

    • CORRECT: I will cook Elmer, and I will also do the dishes.
    • UH-UH: I will cook Elmer, and will also do the dishes.


    Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase.

    • CORRECT: After taking a very long bus and train ride, my cousin said she was tired and wanted to go to bed.
    • UH-UH: When Irwin was ready to iron his cat tripped on the cord (from Rules for Writers, 7th edition).
    • EXCEPTION: You can omit the comma if the clause or phrase is short and the sentence will not be confusing without it. (Example—For once she was happy to see him.)


    So now you know.


    Is “I slept I ate.” a run-on sentence? Find out.

    Sometimes when, after kissing me, she opened the door to go, I longed to call her back, to say to her ‘Kiss me just once again,’ but I knew that then she would at once look displeased, for the concession which she made to my wretchedness and agitation in coming up to me with this kiss of peace always annoyed my father, who thought such ceremonies absurd, and she would have liked to try to induce me to outgrow the need, the custom of having her there at all, which was a very different thing from letting the custom grow up of my asking her for an additional kiss when she was already crossing the threshold.” 

    ∼ from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

    When asked to define a run-on sentence, people will often say it is an overly long sentence. Actually, though, the error has little to do with sentence length, since the sentence “I slept I ate.” consists of just 4 words and is, in fact, a run-on sentence, while the sentence quoted above is 116 words long and is grammatically correct.

    Interesting! Yes?

    From the first volume of Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (also translated as Remembrance of Things Past), considered by many to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written, this 116-word sentence is entirely grammatical, but, because it contains a number of dependent clauses, it is difficult to follow and requires focus and determination when we read it.

    On the other hand, “I slept I ate.” is a fused sentence—a type of run-on sentence—because it lacks internal punctuation and instead “fuses” together two complete sentences (or independent clauses, with a subject and verb, that can stand alone).

    One type of run-on sentence, then, is a fused sentence; the other type is a comma splice, or two or more independent clauses that are separated (or “spliced”) by a comma. A comma splice is a very common error, as in this example: I went home for dinner, I finished my report. In English, it is never correct to separate two independent clauses with a comma.

    To fix a run-on sentence (either a fused sentence or a comma splice), do this:

    • INCORRECT (fused sentence) I slept I ate.
    • CORRECT (three possible fixes) • I slept. I ate. • I slept; I ate. • I slept, and I ate.
    • INCORRECT (comma splice) I went home for dinner, I finished my report.
    • CORRECT (three possible fixes) • I went home for dinner. I finished my report. • I went home for dinner; I finished my report. • I went home for dinner, and I finished my report.

    So now you know.