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I was reading the wiki page about paraprosdokians when I come across this sentence.

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

What is funny about it?

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On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is completely serious and 10 is the funniest thing you've ever heard, this is probably only a 3 or 4. (I mean, I still laughed, but it wasn't that funny) –  advs89 Mar 4 '11 at 6:40
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Video, for context. Humour is subjective, and if you don't find something funny, you don't; that's it. I personally find most of Groucho Marx extremely enjoyable, and in this particular segment everything from "After fifteen days on the water, and six on the boat…" to "In Alabama the Tuscaloosa", but well… ideas of humour seem to have changed today, and people don't always enjoy the unexpected. –  ShreevatsaR Mar 4 '11 at 7:57
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An example of a dangling modifier being used to humorous effect. –  Tragicomic Mar 4 '11 at 9:21
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Jasper, various people have indicated where the humour is (in the incongruous image suggested by the second formal interpretation of the phrase) and you have indicated that you don't get the joke, and indeed have suggested a more far-fetched and, to most of us unlikely interpretation. I don't mean to be rude or funny, but I wonder if perhaps you often have difficulty grasping what other people find humorous? To me, the only linguistic part of this case is the fact that English allows two different parses of the sentence; beyond that the humour is not linguistic at all. –  Colin Fine Mar 4 '11 at 13:59
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I wasn't criticizing the joke when I "rated" it a 3 or 4. I was trying to objectively measure the level of humor for any non-native English speakers. In my foreign-language-learning experiences, I've found that it's relatively easy to determine when someone is trying to be funny. It is much harder, however, to gauge how funny something is (in another language). –  advs89 Mar 4 '11 at 21:09

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The default interpretation of the first part of the sentence, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas", is that "while I was wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant." At least 99% of all listeners who hear the sentence will parse it that way.

The humorous part comes from the disconnect generated by the second phrase, wherein the initial default interpretation is turned on its head; rather than "I shot an elephant [while I was] in my pajamas, the speaker forces you to reinterpret it as "I shot an elephant (who was) in my pajamas."

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It's more the "haha... I didn't think of it that way" that is funny. The absurdity of an elephant wearing pajamas is also a component of the humor, though. –  advs89 Mar 4 '11 at 6:31
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@Jasper, the absurdity of an elephant wearing a man's pajamas is one element of the humor, but the bigger one is the surprise reversal of the normal scenario established by the first part of the sentence. "One morning I <did something> in my pajamas" forms an image of someone still in pajamas from the previous night; the rest of the sentence inverts that reasonable assumption (with an absurd one, no less). It probably takes a fluent speaker to get this, since if you have to spend a lot of time understanding the first part, it will lose its punch. –  mgkrebbs Mar 4 '11 at 6:38
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@Jasper: Groucho Marx was a genius when it came to using the American English language. He knew how to take a totally inane, unassuming sentence or phrase and turn it on its ear. My favorite is: Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read. He is playing on the phrase, "A dog is a man's best friend". "Outside of a dog" means that, if you ignore the dog or there isn't a dog, the next thing that is man's best friend is a book. Then he turns the entire statement into something else, making us look at the whole first sentence differently. His humor (cont) –  user11262 Jul 23 '11 at 17:54
    
was distinctly American, and almost always involved a way to misuse English in a perfectly acceptable manner. –  user11262 Jul 23 '11 at 17:54

"in my pajamas" -> Inside your pajamas

whereas to avoid ambiguity, one possibility would be:

"wearing my pajamas" -> shot the elephant when you were in your pajamas

Basically the funny thing here is that the elephant is not in your pajamas but the sentence somehow ends up painting that picture. Or so I think...

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@Jasper: There isn't, that was meant to show how the sentence should have been framed to avoid ambiguity. –  Sanjay T. Sharma Mar 4 '11 at 5:54
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Well actually, "One morning I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas" could still be amgiguous. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 5 '11 at 17:38

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