Zeugma: telling stories and jokes

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve strayed off the topic of the English language as we introduce the topic of zeugma (zyoog-ma). Actually, the term comes from the Greek for “yoking” or “bonding”, and it refers to a literary device whereby a single word – usually a verb or adjective – applies to more than one noun, thereby joining together ideas that are logically and grammatically different.

Or, if you’d like a technical dictionary definition: “A construction in which one word or phrase is understood to fill a parallel syntactic role in two or more clauses or phrases“.

Zeugma can be used in different ways. In many cases, the use of zeugma is humorous, as in puns where the reader has to search momentarily for the alternative meaning of a word before getting the joke. But zeugma isn’t always used for humour; it can simply add a deeper meaning to a sentence and when used well it produces an interesting literary style.

Grammatically questionable

In one example of zeugma, also called grammatical syllepsis, a word is applied to different parts of a sentence, but not all parts are grammatically or logically correct.

“Did you see the thunder and lightning last night?”

-Technically incorrect because nobody can ‘see’ thunder.

“I have chosen a blue shirt; he, a red one.”

-If we’re being picky (and there are plenty of grammarians out there who are), the second part would read “he have chosen a red one” so the verb ‘have’ cannot be used zeugmatically in this case.

Plays on words
In the following examples, there is no question that the sentences are grammatically correct, but the single word being used with different meanings simultaneously can be jarring to the reader. In most cases, we have a figurative meaning combined with a literal meaning. See what you think:

“She’s lost her glasses and her mind.”

“I did not want to break her heart or her fine china.”

“We’re having my mother-in-law and a chicken casserole for dinner.”

-Before you make any accusations of cannibalism, consider the sentence “We’re having my mother-in-law for dinner”.

“He raised his glass and his hopes as she approached him.”

“He was, by all accounts, an expert when it came to making good coffee and love.”

Examples of zeugma in literature and pop culture
“You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.” (Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation)

“Miss Bolo […] went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.” (Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, Chapter 35)

 “When he asked “What in heaven?” she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door.” (Flanders and Swann, Have Some Madeira M’Dear)

 “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.” (Robert Bloch, Psycho)

 It’s probable that you’ve come across plenty of examples of zeugma in the past and not even given them a second thought. But now you know the name of this literary device, perhaps you’ll appreciate it more next time it crosses your path – or your mind.

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