Tamsin Constable

‘I shot an elephant in my pyjamas’ (and other misplaced modifiers)

They’re the stuff that comedians feast on. Misplaced modifiers can be deliciously funny because they make a sentence mean something completely different to what the writer intended.

A modifier adds detail to the sentence.

I saw some ducks flying around the lake.

A misplaced modifier adds it in the wrong place.

Flying around the lake, I saw some ducks.

Here are some more.

Grandpa rode a horse wearing a bow-tie with red spots.

Will was referred to a psychiatrist with mental health problems.

We almost made a profit of £40.

Readers can often infer the correct the meaning (Grandpa was wearing the bow tie, it was Will who had problems, the profit was just under £40). No real harm is done. But a misplaced clause can also cause real confusion.

Take this:

On arrival at the conference centre, please take Tessa to the meeting.

Does it mean this?

As soon as Tessa arrives at the conference centre, please take her to the meeting.

Or this?

When you get to the conference centre, please take Tessa to the meeting.

Will Tessa be there already? Or should you get there first? Will you and Tessa be travelling together? It’s unclear, confusing, time-wasting etc.

So, when you’re writing, think about where to put those extra details, and avoid corporate-egg-on-your-business-face.

Here’s Groucho Marx, brilliantly: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I’ll never know.

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