Comedians, Marketing Ploys, and Modifiers

1 Feb

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).” This is a classic line; it shows perfectly the idea of a misplaced modifier, and how it can be humorous — intentional or not.Animal Crackers

As defined by The Brief Penguin Handbook, a modifier is a general term for adjectives, adverbs, phrases, and clauses that describe other words. A modifier is labeled as misplaced if it is not clearly attached to what it modifies. “Additionally, a dangling modifier is one that doesn’t seem to apply to anything in the sentence. Dangling or misplaced modifiers can make our sentences unintentionally humorous” (2). “Three year old lunch and dinner buffet – $2.00,” brags an advertisement shown by Jay Leno, courtesy of the NBC website ( Obviously, we have to assume that the food is not three years old, but that children age three and under are only charged $2.00 for their meals. How often I’ve laughed at these ridiculous statements, made by people who haven’t thought through their sentences or phrases! There is a whole segment of the show (known as Headlines) dedicated to statements like these, but you don’t have to watch late-night television to see silly sentences created by misplaced modifiers.

The Brief Penguin Handbook gives a good example of a funny, confusing sentence on page 575, “Many pedestrians are killed each year by motorists not using sidewalks.” And exactly why the motorists should be using the sidewalks is unclear to me! The edited sentence reads like this, “Many pedestrians not using sidewalks are killed each year by motorists.” Now that makes more sense! (The sentence, not the lack of sidewalk usage.)

Many people can tell immediately that the sentence is either confusing or crazy, but they aren’t sure what the problem is and/or how to fix it. You should first find what the modifier is in the sentence. Next, you should check to see if the modifier has anything to modify (otherwise, strike it; it’s useless). Last, make sure the modifier is as close as possible to the word, phrase, or clause it modifies.

One PDF I came across, Correcting Misused Modifiers, gives the following examples and explanations (3):

  • Sentence: “The car raced to the first turn accelerating rapidly.”
    The modifier “accelerating rapidly” comes after the noun turn. By not being positioned in one of the two acceptable positions beside the intended modifiee (The car), “accelerating rapidly” modifies the first turn. To say that the first turn was accelerating rapidly is nonsense created by an obviously misused modifier.
  • Sentence: “Listening attentively, the mayor addressed the workers.”
    The modifier “listening attentively” is in the second acceptable position, to the left of a possible modifiee, the mayor. So the modifier modifies the mayor. To say that the mayor was listening attentively while he addressed the workers is to describe a physical impossibility created by another obviously misused modifier.

As I was continuing to look for humorous modifier problems, I came across these absurd statements:

• He served pancakes to the children on paper plates. (Were the children on paper plates?) (4)
• I saw a rabbit and a raccoon on the way to the airport. (Were the rabbit and the raccoon on the way to the airport?) (4)
• The hunter crouched behind a tree waiting for a bear to come along with a bow and arrow. (5) (Did the bear have the bow and arrow?)
• Flying over the African landscape, the elephant herd looked magnificent. (5) (Must have been amazing to see those elephants fly!)

After finishing my research, I decided that my findings were somewhat depressing to me. It wasn’t difficult to find these types of errors; writers and editors have become sloppy with this general rule. That’s not to say I’ve never done it, but I feel that people should be more careful with their final results, especially those that end up in print or on a website. I found that it is pretty common in both written and spoken language, but that written mistakes are remembered longer. Finally, it doesn’t seem to matter what your education level is; I think it has more to do with people being in a hurry.

The lesson to be learned here? Slow down, take your time, proofread, proofread, and proofread — unless your intention is to make people laugh. As Grammar Girl eloquently puts it, “You don’t want to inadvertently put an elephant into anyone’s pajamas. Thanks, Groucho, for the grammar lesson!” (6)


(1) Bartlett, John. Kaplan, Justin, Ed. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1992, p 693.
(3) Correcting Misused Modifiers,


3 Responses to “Comedians, Marketing Ploys, and Modifiers”

  1. Simon February 8, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

  2. Darren Cormier February 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Anne Fadiman was the visiting writer my first semester at SNHU. She showed examples from her Yale students and from magazine ads of misplaced modifiers and other poor grammar usage. Even a high pedigree can’t prevent poor grammar.

  3. Kelly Gamble February 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    But they are funny. :)

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