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Fun With Words

Grammar Foibles

Grammar is a notoriously ill-favored subject in high school, and even for language enthusiasts it can become frustrating at times. But there is much fun to be mined out of the rules of grammar, in particular the ways in which these rules can be broken, with humorous effects.

Sentences Ending With Prepositions

A traditional rule of grammar is that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. Facetiously stated, the rule is, "A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with." Although it is generally advisable to structure sentences so that they do not end in prepositions, as this makes for more elegant writing, many dispute that ending a sentence with a preposition is incorrect, especially when there is no convenient way to reword the sentence.

Sometimes the "correct" wording is humorously awkward, as in, "Mr. Hunter cursed his memory of the milkman, away with which his wife ran."

Winston Churchill once put a preposition at the end of a sentence and was called to task for it. As the story goes, Churchill replied, "That's the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put."

Another interesting sentence that plays with sentence-end prepositions is, "Aw, Mom, what'd you bring that book I don't like to be read to out of up for?" If the book in question was about Australia, the number of prepositions at the end can be increased from five to eight: "Aw, Mom, what'd you bring that book I don't like to be read to out of about Down Under up for?" "Down Under" is used in this sentence as a single noun rather than as two prepositions, but we needn't let a technicality like that ruin our fun.


A malapropism is the use of an incorrect word in place of a similarly sounding correct word. The name comes from the character Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals, a comedic play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The character has numerous lines that illustrate the blunder that would become her namesake. Here is some of her dialogue:

The above malapropisms, of course, were engineered for comic effect, but inadvertent malapropisms can be just as humorous. These were taken from college essays:

Here's one taken from an article written by a college freshman:

A special type of malapropism is only unmasked in writing. It involves confusing one homonym with another. Consider the following:

Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

Descriptive phrases, such as gerund phrases or prepositional phrases, modify the nearest noun. Misplacing them by putting them nearer another noun can cause some humorous unintended confusion. Sometimes the appropriate noun isn't even in the sentence at all, in which case the modifier is said to dangle. There are countless examples of misplaced and dangling modifiers, given in the form of jokes, that are in circulation. Here are some examples of interesting ones:

Obviously there are countless amusing variations. This particular point of grammar is easy to commit in ignorance, so speakers and writers should be vigilant about avoiding misplaced and dangling modifiers. The following are some more examples, these from actual college essays:

The colloquial speech of the Pennsylvania Dutch is inclined toward this particular error. Two prototypical examples: "Throw Papa down the stairs his hat," and "Throw the horse over the fence some hay." For an incomprehensibly convoluted example, here's a real question, once asked of my grandmother: "Let's walk North Hampton street up side by each."