“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.
  • On writing anything we want others to read

    Image result for writingAny piece of expository writing, whether a report for work or an essay for a college English class, will be successful only to the extent that it is read; understood; and, if we have done our jobs well, appreciated. At the very least, it needs some kind of introduction that tells our readers where they’re headed and what they’re likely to find on the journey they have agreed to take with us. If we don’t provide this, we risk having them scratch their heads in bewilderment because they will feel as though they have come in on the middle of things.

    After we’ve written an introduction that provides this road map, we’ll want to develop solid paragraphs that refer back to and extend our introduction. Every paragraph needs a topic sentence—a general statement that provides an overview of what the paragraph is about—and all of the information in the paragraph should relate only to and deepen that particular topic. If, for example, the topic sentence is about fruit, we will not want to include in the paragraph material about flat tires and incense unless we are certain we can successfully relate these to the topic of fruit.

    Of course, if we create a paragraph around one topic but say little of importance about that topic, it is as if we have said nothing at all. To be successful writers, then, we need to develop our topics by providing substantive information that supports and deepens them. This includes using our own knowledge, observations, and experiences and offering paraphrased, summarized, and quoted material from our sources that add authority and credibility to our own ideas.

    Crafting a paragraph (or sets of related paragraphs) around one topic goes a long way towards ensuring cohesion (when ideas hold together, one after the other) and coherence (when the writing flows smoothly). Using transitions that connect the ideas from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next also helps to create a cohesive and unified piece; however, it is not enough just to use transitional words (such as “however”) and phrases that link sentences and paragraphs. Other transitional devices include taking an idea from one sentence and repeating or paraphrasing it in the next as well as referring back to an idea in a preceding paragraph.

    Concluding well is as important as beginning well, and there are any number of ways to end an expository piece of writing. One way to end is to synthesize what you have written and to suggest why the reader should care about what you have said. Another conclusion strategy is to offer compelling information or insights that you have not mentioned previously.


    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.

    “From the Department of Redundancy Department”

    editingLast week, while grading the first sets of essays in my writing classes, I noticed that many of the papers contained overly long sentences with grammatical structures that snapped under their weight. As a result, I decided my students and I would need to have a conversation about the importance of being concise.

    For a number of reasons, though, it is difficult to describe how one goes about being crisp in one’s writing. To begin, the word “concise” means different things to different people, so getting agreement on a definition is no easy task. And, more and more I am coming to see that what appears superfluous to one writer might be essential to another.

    Take, for example, my having just written, “And, more and more I am coming to see that….” Of course I could have simply said, “I see that….” To me, however, there is a certain rhythm to the original, which I am entitled to admire  :), and there is also a sense I wish to convey by using the present progressive tense that I have come slowly to this understanding.

    Perhaps we can agree, though, that there are obvious redundancies to avoid in our writing, and rooting them out might be a good way to develop sensitivity towards the more subtle excesses. Here, then, is a list of common superfluities:

    • Actual fact: By definition a fact is something that “is indisputably [or actually] the case,” so just the word “fact” will suffice.
    • Added bonus: A “bonus” is something that is extra or added, so “added” can be deleted.
    • Advance planning: “Planning” is something we do in advance. No?
    • At the present time: When we say “at present” we mean at this time, so we can just say “at present.” We can be even more concise and say, “Now.”
    • End result: If you think about it, a result is something that happens at the end, so the word “end” is unnecessary.
    • Enter in: When you enter a place, you go into that place, so “in” is redundant.
    • Past history: There is no need for the word “past.” In the known universe, history is something that is always in the past. Right?
    • Revert back: When something “reverts” it returns to a previous state, so “back” is unnecessary.
    • Still remains: This is a phrase I have been known to use, and more than once, but it is redundant: If something remains, it is still there, so out with “still.”
    • Unexpected surprise: If you expected a surprise, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
    • Unintentional mistake: If we make a mistake, we make it unintentionally, so just “mistake” will do.
    • Written down: I am often guilty of this redundancy. Something that is written is something that is written down. “Written” is all we need to say, then.

    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.