An Elephant in My Pajamas: The Misplaced Modifier

In the 1930 Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx tells a joke about an elephant:

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

This joke has been quoted, misquoted, parodied, and paid homage to many times since then. Growing up, I even remember hearing a version of it on the PBS kids’ show Arthur. The joke went completely over my head at the time, as did the fact that it depends for its humor on a lesser-known type of grammatical mistake, the misplaced modifier.

A Lesson in Grammar

First things first: modifiers add extra information to part of a sentence, but aren’t needed in order to make the sentence grammatically complete. In other words, if you take out all of the modifiers, a sentence will still be able to stand on its own.

Modifiers can be one word, usually an adjective or adverb, or they can be phrases consisting of several words, as in Groucho’s joke.

In our example, the phrase “in my pajamas” serves as a modifier (as does “One morning,” but it’s not doing anything funny in the sentence). It makes the most logical sense for the phrase”in my pajamas” to be modifying—that is, adding extra information about—the subject of the sentence, “I.”

After all, it doesn’t make sense for an elephant to be wearing Groucho-Marx-sized pajamas. Yet the placement of the modifier in the sentence, right after “an elephant,” makes it seem like this unlikely scenario is the case. That, my friends, is the joke.

An error-free rendering of the sentence would read something like,

“One morning, in my pajamas, I shot an elephant.”

Now it’s clear that the “I” was the one in the pajamas.

Misplaced Modifiers on the SAT and ACT

You’ll likely encounter a question or two about misplaced modifiers on both the SAT Writing and ACT English tests. On both tests, modifier questions have a special category all to themselves. This shouldn’t trouble you, though.

If you remember Groucho’s joke, you’ll be better equipped to spot the mistaken placement of modifiers. Of all of the grammar errors you’ll encounter on the SAT and ACT, the misplaced modifier is the most likely to be, well, kind of funny.

Take this example from Ivy Global’s ACT book:

“The banquet was provided by a local man with chicken fingers.”

This sentence makes it seem like the local man’s fingers were literally made out of chicken, which, while funny to think about, doesn’t seem all that likely.

If you take a step back from the sentence and look at all of its constituent parts, you can see that the culprit is the modifying phrase “by a local man.” If you take it out, you can see that the main gist of the sentence is that a banquet was provided with chicken fingers to eat.

The phrase “by a local man” merely indicates who brought this food for the banquet. With its wayward modifier put in the right place, the sentence reads, “The banquet was provided with chicken fingers by a local man.”

Of course, not every misplaced modifier question will involve such surreal possibilities, but they’ll all test your ability to turn a sentence with confusing syntax into one that makes a little more sense.

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