In 1990, Michael Jordan scored sixty-nine points in one game, a career-high in a stunning career. The same night, his rookie teammate Stacey King came in late in the game and hit a single free throw. In the post-game press conference, the reporters buzzed around Michael Jordan. But Stacey King managed to squeeze in one zinger. He told the reporters, “I will always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score seventy points.”

That looks like a basketball joke. Actually, it’s a grammar joke.

The funniest word in Stacey King’s sentence is the coordinating conjunction and. The word and exists for the purpose of setting up compound structures:

  • We sang and danced. (compound verb)
  • We ate lobster and pork rinds. (compound direct object)
  • She was full of fun and fight. (compound object of preposition)
  • MJ and I combined to score seventy points. (compound subject)

In a compound structure, we expect the things on either side of the and to be the same kind of thing. Without getting too deep into it, this is the basis of parallelism. Consider this sentence, which contains faulty parallelism:

  • I like to swim and playing basketball.

That and sets up a compound direct object. But the grammatical structures on either side of the and don’t match up: to swim is an infinitive, and playing basketball is a gerund phrase. To make things parallel, just plug in matching grammatical structures:

  • I like to swim and play basketball.
  • I like swimming and playing basketball.

Here’s another thing about the conjunction and: whereas other connecting words attempt to explain something about the relationship between the things, ideas, or actions they connect, the connector and is neutral regarding the relationship between the things it connects. Consider these sentences:

  • The dog swam in the canal although the alligator lurked nearby.
  • The dog swam in the canal because the alligator lurked nearby.
  • Whenever the dog swam in the canal, the alligator lurked nearby.
  • The dog swam in the canal, and the alligator lurked nearby.

The subordinating conjunctions although, because, and whenever each make a different comment on the connection between the dog’s swimming and the alligator’s lurking. But the coordinating conjunction and avoids making any such comment. It simply says, “This thing is true, and this other thing is also true.” Because it doesn’t provide the reader with any guidance to the contrary, the word and implies that the things it connects deserve the same kind of attention. 

That’s why I say the conjunction and is the funniest word in Stacey King’s quip, “I will always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score seventy points.” The compound subject “Michael Jordan and I” sets up the one-point rookie and the sixty-nine-point superstar as equal partners in an endeavor in which they were decidedly not equal partners. 

That grammatical slipperiness makes it possible for Stacey King’s sentence to express a literal, mathematical truth (69 + 1 = 70) while still being utterly misaligned with reality—which is the foundation of a whole lot of humor.

Do you have topics or questions for future issues of The Habit Weekly?
If so, I’d love to hear them. Send me an email. Otherwise, I might subject you to more over-analysis of joke-grammar.