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Comedians seem to use phrases that employ this type of sentence structure - is there a name for it?

Examples of Groucho Marx's one liners seem to fit this pattern — and if memory serves, Emo Philips.

  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got in my pajamas, I don't know.

  • I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.

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I don't get the sentence in the title, can you please explain? –  Louis Rhys Mar 4 '11 at 2:17
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@Louis: When filling a drinking vessel for someone else you might say "Tell me when." to ask the recipient to indicate how much they want. If she "forget to say 'when'" the pouring continued until she overflowed the available space. I hadn't heard it before, but I find it to be very evocative; I've seen this person. –  dmckee Mar 4 '11 at 3:05
    
"Some days it's just not worth chewing through the leather straps." (Emo Philips) –  Malvolio Mar 4 '11 at 4:00
    
One more Groucho - "I'd horse-whip you, if I could find a horse." –  T.E.D. Jun 14 '11 at 14:02
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He has the heart of a lion, and he keeps it in a jar. –  Daniel Sep 22 '11 at 19:17
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1 Answer

up vote 108 down vote accepted
+50

This is called paraprosdokian.

A paraprosdokian (from Greek "παρα-", meaning "beyond" and "προσδοκία", meaning "expectation") is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.1

You'll find exactly the example you mentioned on the page linked above.

Here's one of my favorite examples among the many they list:

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." — Groucho Marx

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Excellent answer. Wikipedia's list also includes my favorite example: "I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long." — Mitch Hedberg –  Andy Mar 3 '11 at 19:33
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Saturday Night Live's "Jack Handy's Deep Thoughts" were uniformly of this sort, e.g., "“It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.” goo.gl/bScFf –  The Raven Mar 3 '11 at 19:54
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Saki had one too, "She was a good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went." –  Chinmay Kanchi Mar 3 '11 at 22:08
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William Casselman asserts that paraprosdokian is a bogus, sloppily constructed word of recent origin and says "Educated people call these: 'sentences with surprise endings'." –  mgkrebbs Mar 4 '11 at 5:28
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Casselman comes off as arrogant, overreactive, and not particularly well-informed himself. His inability to engage in civil dialogue lowers my confidence in his objectivity, as does his tendency to take cheap shots: "One little Britlet has written to say there are only 2 Greek roots in the word. Oh? Para (1) + pros (2) + dok (3) + ia (4). Are they not still teaching simple addition at Whitechapel's Wanksome Hall?" Incidentally -ia[n] is a suffix, not a root, and pros is debatable: a prefix here more than a root, though it can also be a preposition. –  LarsH Apr 21 '11 at 20:56
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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 12 '11 at 10:56

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