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.
This blog post is entirely misinformation, based upon misapplication after misapplication of grammatical concepts. It harms readers’ understanding more than it improves it, as almost everything within is incorrect:
“Actually, it’s a grammar joke.” — No, it is not. A grammar joke would be like a pun or similar, where the humor depends upon the interpretation being unusual. E.g. “We don’t allow pandas in this restaurant. / Why’s that? / Haven’t you read about them in the encyclopedia? Panda: eats, shoots, and leaves!” This joke plays on the difference between “eats shoots and leaves” vs. “eats, shoots, and leaves” which is the same phrase but having had different grammar applied.
“In a compound structure, we expect the things on either side of the ‘and’ to be the same kind of thing.” — This sentence itself is true in some sense, but immediately after it you go on to conflate grammatical structure with semantic content: “…sets up the one-point rookie and the sixty-nine-point superstar as equal partners…” Grammatically, both MJ and the rookie are people (or nouns, etc.). Semantically, “superstar” and “rookie” are quite different. So our expectation that things on either side of ‘and’ have the same grammatical category is not at all violated; our grammar doesn’t apply differently to players based on their skill.
” the connector ‘and’ is neutral regarding the relationship between the things it connects. ” This much is true. However, it directly contradicts the next part: “the word ‘and’ implies that the things it connects deserve the same kind of attention.” The connector ‘and’ cannot both be neutral and carry implications, those things are mutually exclusive.
From that contradiction, you furthermore draw unwarranted conclusions: “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. ” The term ‘and’ IS neutral, and therefore does NOT set up MJ and the rookie as equal partners. It is not invalid for me to say that MJ and I scored 69 points that same game. Readers would rightly presume that MJ scored all 69 of those points by himself, but that doesn’t make it incorrect to say that he and I *together* scored 69 points, which brings us to the final part…
“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” This is the worst line of the whole blog. The joke HINGES upon the grammatical CLARITY of what the rookie said: “…Michael Jordan and I COMBINED to…” The word “combined” is the crux of the joke, not the word ‘and’. As mentioned above, it is perfectly valid for me to say, “MJ and I together scored 69 points that game,” because ‘and’ carries no implications of relationship. What the rookie said, however, is that he and MJ *COMBINED* to score 70 points. Via the meaning of “combination”, both MJ and the rookie were ESSENTIAL parts… it is the meaning of “combination” that carries the implication of being “equal partners in an endeavor in which they were decidedly not equal partners.” In my earlier example, I was able to say that MJ and I together scored 69 points that game, because ‘and’ and ‘together’ carry no implications of relationship– it’s like apples and oranges. However, I CANNOT say that “MJ and I combined scored 69 points that game” because I did not score any points that game (and because MJ scored all the points) and therefore there was no “combination” at all. The grammar NECESSITATES that both MJ and the rookie had non-negligible contribution, and the humor comes from the fact that while a single point is *often* negligible *in practice*, it remains that a single point is still a real, official point, and so the statement is technically true and correct while still misleading the listener.
Furthermore, just to be abundantly clear, it isnt a grammar joke because the exact grammar isn’t relevant. The humor comes from an incongruity between what was expected and what actually happened, it does not rely upon the exact grammatical structure to convey its humor. e.g. “MJ and I worked together to score a total 70 points by ourselves” uses different grammar to express a similar false impression: that MJ and the rookie contributed equally towards the 70 points (although it isn’t as impactful because “worked together” is less specific than “combined”).
Sounds like you should start your own grammar blog, Nobody Asked. Sorry to have offended you…but here’s hoping I haven’t harmed any readers’ understanding too deeply or permanently.