A Word, Please: Explaining why the joke is funny

In 2014, to promote a new exhibit on Vikings, the British Museum set sail with a clever public relations spectacle: an authentic-looking vessel manned by a motley crew that sailed down the Thames and past government buildings where members of Parliament had a front-row seat for the show.

As one insightful observer reported: “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilized, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nonetheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel.”

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This “Aw, snap!” was brought to you by a little grammar concept called modifying phrases.

A few weeks ago in this space we talked about two types of modifying phrases: participial phrases, which often hinge on “ing” words like “involving,” and prepositional phrases like “with chocolate sauce” and “in New York.”

Both types can modify nouns, as in “a crime involving a minor” or “ice cream with chocolate sauce.” But those aren’t the only kinds of phrases that can modify nouns. Adjective phrases can, too. And understanding these units helps you see how the author of that Viking quip pulled off such a clever burn on elected officials.

But first, we should talk about what a phrase is. In everyday speech, we usually use “phrase” to talk about a group of two or more words. But in syntactical analysis — that is, grammar — a phrase can be just one word. That’s because, in grammar, the term “phrase” means a part of sentence that does one of several specific jobs: adjective phrases, noun phrases, verb phrases, and so on.

We can break the sentence “The cat hunts birds” into three phrases: a noun phrase (the cat), a verb phrase (hunts) and another noun phrase (birds).

The first noun phrase is our subject, the second our verb, the third the object of the verb. That’s the idea behind phrases: they’re units doing separate jobs. Phrases can contain other phrases: “The surly gray cat mercilessly hunts migrating song birds from the Pacific Northwest.” Here, the noun phrase that’s the subject of the sentence is “the surly gray cat,” but within it we have two adjective phrases, “surly” and “gray.”

You can think of “the surly gray cat” as one unit doing one job, or you can break it down to analyze its parts and the jobs they’re doing.

Adjective phrases, participial phrases and prepositional phrases can modify other words. “From the Pacific Northwest” is a prepositional phrase modifying the noun “birds.” “Mercilessly” is an adverb phrase modifying the verb “hunts.”

Adjective phrases often attach to the noun: the surly, mean, vicious, bloodthirsty cat. But you can also set them apart as introductory matter: “Surly, mean, vicious and bloodthirsty, the cat leapt at the bird.”

Notice that, even though there are two nouns in that sentence, there’s no question that the cat and not the bird is the bloodthirsty one. Why? Because “cat” is closer to the word “bloodthirsty” than “bird” is. With modifying phrases, proximity is everything.

Which brings us back to our marauding politicians. Notice what follows the adjective phrases in the sentence “Famously uncivilized, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nonetheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel.”

The writer sets you up by making you think he’s describing the Vikings, then delivers the punch line simply by placing the noun phrase MPs after three adjective phrases — uncivilized, destructive and rapacious — and one prepositional phrase — “with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking.”

Ah, British wit.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at