Tuesday, April 30, 2013

GrammatiCats: Zeugma


Zeugma.  (Pronounced ZOOGma - the 'eu' is like it is in 'leukemia', and like everybody thinks it is in 'Dr. Seuss'.)

Yeah, I didn't know this one either - but it's totally a thing!  Are you ready for this?  I mean, fair warning:

Pinkie Rating: 5

For real, you guys.  This one isn't long, but it goes deep.

So what's zeugma?  It's like this:

See how that sentence is really two in one?

1.  I'll have a double martini
2.  I'll have your job

Simply put, zeugma is the use of one word to control two or more words in different ways.  Let's stand on that last part for a sec.  Here, the stem word - in this case, 'have' - is being used differently in the two sentences:

1.  I would like to order a double martini
2.  I will get you fired

--in that second sentence, 'have' isn't being used literally - certainly Obnoxious-Cat doesn't want to actually work the waitress job!  That makes it fundamentally different from its use in the first sentence.

On the other hand, if the stem word or words WERE being used the same way in both sentences, it would be ellipsis:
I'll have a double martini or a new server.

"Hang on a sec," you may rightly say.  "Isn't ellipsis the thing with the dots?"

It is!  You remember how we talked about ellipses (the punctuation marks) awhile back, and how they're used to show an omission of words.  Rhetorical ellipses actually do the same thing!

 Mopsy never let decorum cramp her style, nor a trivial thing like spinal structure.
Here, for example, we've cut out part of the sentence.  If we wrote the whole thing out, it would say:

Mopsy never let decorum cramp her style, nor did she let a trivial thing like spinal structure cramp her style.

By removing (also known as 'elliding') the words in italics, we've made the sentence shorter, neater, and snappier.  (In stark contrast to Mopsy, who is sitting sprawled out in her own furry gut.)

Here's what's weird about zeugma, though: nobody can agree on what it actually is.  The definition and example I've used come from Theory #1.  Theory #2 says that no, that's syllepsis - zeugma is when one of the two branches of the sentence doesn't match the stem-word.  For example,
He sipped his beer and pretzels.

The one nice thing about this ongoing unresolved slap-fight between zeugma and syllepsis is that it emphasizes how little true finality there is with the rules of English.  The fact that even the most punctilious of the arch-professional grammar boffins can't agree on this stuff should serve as a reminder, not only for super-obscure trivia like zeugma/syllepsis, but also for the use of English at large:

The rules of English exist to serve *us*.  When they no longer suit us, we change them.  So whenever you catch yourself feeling intimidated by all the little peculiar intricacies of the language, give your dictionary a level stare and repeat after Ben-Hur-Cat:

Further Reading:
Wikipedia: Zeugma - I try not to just link Wikipedia articles and fall asleep, but this truly does the best job of explaining the whole zeugma/syllepsis thing that I've seen so far.
Examples of Zeugma - just what it says on the tin.  There's some humdingers here!

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Apollo, courtesy of the inimitable Honoré Hillman
2. Our own shameless Peaches
3. Shelter-kitty!  Courtesy of Dr. C

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Woo! Many congrats on your successful and entertaining A-Z Challenge!

    And wow, zeugmas... mind blown.

    Much love, Frank the Magnificent and Zeugmatic.

    1. Haha, thanks, Frankles - I *might* have done it without you, but it would have been 58% less fun and interesting. Thanks for getting me through - you light up the Internet, even by proxy!

  2. Great post.
    Congrats on reaching the end of the challenge too.

    1. YOU TOO, ma'am - I can't believe we ate the whole thing! (Next year, I wanna have it as together as you do - you are the Queen of the Social Scene.)

  3. The best zeugmas are the ones using homophones. Audibly grammatical sentences that cannot be written grammatically.

    "He planned to (medal/mettle) in skiing and the commissioner's plans."

    "Tobias (blue/blew) himself and the audition."

    That second one could be particularly tricky.

    1. Ha! It took me a sec to get the Arrested Development reference - that's divine. I wonder if there's a word for the reverse? Like when the stem word has only one spelling, but two different pronunciations/meanings. I must find out!

    2. I think 'homograph' (literally 'written the same') is the word for that -- like dove (a bird) and dove (jumped into a pool), is that what you mean? Now that you mention it, a zeugma using a homograph is pretty neat too, because it makes sense when written, but not spoken. I can't think of many homographs where both meanings are verbs, though.

      "He resigned both his job and the contract."

      Of course, if you ignore the probably hyphen needed to spell it correctly, resign is also a contranym -- its own opposite!

    3. That's the one! Damn, buddy, I need to be taking lessons from YOU. That is so cool!

  4. What an interesting post! Congrats on completing a-z! :)

    1. YOU TOO, ma'am - way to do it! (And congrats on your new book - that is so exciting!)

  5. YAY congrats! You made it! Long live the Grammaticats! I never knew about Zuegmas. I know I've heard/used them, but never much thought they had any actual distinction.

    Great job with your A to Z theme and posts! What is in store now? Where to go from here?

    1. Hey dude - thanks for the high five! (And do you know, I actually had no idea about zeugma either - this month has been an education in itself!)

      Anyway, I got all eaten up with the conference this weekend, so I'm hugely late in replying to everything. But now it's time for a big sigh of relief and some chill-out time. Next month: moving!