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.

  • I don't get the sentence in the title, can you please explain?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Mar 4, 2011 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. Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 3:05
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    "Some days it's just not worth chewing through the leather straps." (Emo Philips) Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 4:00
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    One more Groucho - "I'd horse-whip you, if I could find a horse."
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 14:02
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    He has the heart of a lion, and he keeps it in a jar.
    – Daniel
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 19:17

1 Answer 1


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
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 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
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 19:54
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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
    Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 5:28
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    Casselman's definition seems wrong. "The cat stalked stealthily toward the mouse, then lay down and died" has a surprise ending, but doesn't "causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part". Casselman apparently tried to be clever by providing a short phrase for paraprosdokian, but failed to capture the meaning of the term.
    – LarsH
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 20:35
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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
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 20:56