7 Sentences That Sound Crazy But Are Still Grammatical


Let's not look at grammar as a cold, harsh mistress. She can also be a fun, kooky aunt. Here are some tricks you can do to make crazy sounding sentences that are still grammatical. 

1. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.

Take advantage of the fact that the same sentence can have two different structures. This famous joke from Groucho Marx assumes that most people expect the structure of the first part to be

One morning [I shot an elephant] [in my pajamas].

But another possible, and perfectly grammatical, reading is

One morning [I shot] [an elephant in my pajamas].

2. The horse raced past the barn fell.

Make a garden path sentence. In this one, we think we've reached the main verb when we get to "raced," but instead we are still inside a reduced relative clause. Reduced relative clauses let us say, "the speech given this morning" instead of "the speech that was given this morning" or, in this case "the horse raced past the barn" instead of "the horse that was raced past the barn."

3. The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.

Another garden path sentence, this one depends on the fact that "complex," "houses," and "married" can serve as different parts of speech. Here, "complex" is a noun (a housing complex) instead of an adjective, "houses" is a verb instead of a noun, and "married" is an adjective instead of the past tense of a verb.

4. The rat the cat the dog chased killed ate the malt.

Make a sentence with multiple center embeddings. We usually have no problem putting one clause inside another in English. We can take "the rat ate the malt" and stick in more information to make "the rat the cat killed ate the malt."  But the more clauses we add in, the harder it gets to understand the sentence. In this case, the rat ate the malt. After that it was killed by a cat. That cat had been chased by a dog. The grammar of the sentence is fine. The style, not so good.

5. Anyone who feels that if so many more students whom we haven’t actually admitted are sitting in on the course than ones we have that the room had to be changed, then probably auditors will have to be excluded, is likely to agree that the curriculum needs revision.

Another crazy center-embedded sentence. Can you figure it out? Start with "anyone who feels X is likely to agree." Then go to "anyone who feels if X then Y is likely to agree." Then fill out the X and Y. You might need a pencil and paper.

6. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Buffalo! It's a noun! It's a city! It's a verb (meaning "to intimidate")! We've discussed the notorious buffalo sentence before, but it never stops being fun. It plays on reduced relative clauses, different part-of-speech readings of the same word, and center embedding, all in the same sentence. Stare at it until you get the following meaning: "Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community, also happen to intimidate other bison in their community."

7. This exceeding trifling witling, considering ranting criticizing concerning adopting fitting wording being exhibiting transcending learning, was displaying, notwithstanding ridiculing, surpassing boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing, and touching detecting deceiving arguing during debating.

This sentence takes advantage of the versatile English –ing. The author of a 19th century grammar guide lamented the fact that one could "run to great excess" in the use of –ing participles "without violating any rule of our common grammars," and constructed this sentence to prove it. It doesn't seem so complicated once you realize it means,

"This very superficial grammatist, supposing empty criticism about the adoption of proper phraseology to be a show of extraordinary erudition, was displaying, in spite of ridicule, a very boastful turgid argument concerning the correction of false syntax, and about the detection of false logic in debate."

Not only is this a great example of the wonderful crazy things you can do within the bounds of proper English, it's the perfect response to pull out the next time someone tries to criticize your grammar.

Sources of sentences: 1. Groucho Marx; 2. Bever (1970); 3. Wikipedia; 4. Chomsky & Miller (1963); 5. Chomsky & Miller (1963); 6. William Rapaport; 7. Goold Brown (1851).

Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million

Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]


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