What Is Zeugma?

Zeugma is a figure of speech in which a single word joins two (or more) parts of a sentence. Sometimes, zeugma is a writing mistake, and sometimes it isn't. Zeugma is often used to create a specific literary effect.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Zeugma that Are Mistakes
  • Examples of Zeugma Employed for Literary Effect
  • A Broader Definition of Zeugma
  • Grammatical Syllepsis
  • Semantic Syllepsis
  • Why Zeugma Is Important
  • Test Time!
zeugma examples

Examples of Zeugma that Are Mistakes

In each example, the shared word (i.e., the one that applies to more than one thing) is shaded.
  • Wage neither war nor peace. wrong cross
  • (There's a term to wage war but not to wage peace.)
  • We watched the luminescence of the lightning and the thumps of the thunder. wrong cross
  • (Watch is appropriate for lightning but not thunder.)
  • And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. wrong cross (The Bible, Exodus 20:18)
  • (Saw is often replaced with witnessed or perceived in more modern translations of this verse.)

Examples of Zeugma Employed for Literary Effect

As before, the shared word is shaded. These examples are not mistakes.
  • Tommy lost his wallet and his head.
  • (The verb lost is acting with wallet and head. In this example, lost is used in two different senses. It is used in a literal sense with wallet and a figurative sense with head. This can be a useful literary technique.)
  • The skeptic opened the door and his mind.
  • (It is a good practice when using this technique to put the most literal element first.)
  • The addict kicked the habit and then the bucket.
  • Give neither counsel nor salt till you are asked for it. (English proverb)
  • (The use of correlative conjunctions (e.g., neither/nor, either/or, and not only/but also) often creates zeugma.)
  • The castaways grew bamboo, beans, and bored.
  • She ran a wives' club, up a debt, and then away.
  • His footsteps were as light as his fingers.
  • (Often, the shared word is a verb, but here it's an adjective.)
  • She took out a loan for a hitman and then her husband.
  • (The shared "word" can be a phrase. Here, it's a phrasal verb.)
  • They tugged and tore at each other's hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory. (Extract from Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)

A Broader Definition of Zeugma

Be aware that some dictionaries describe zeugma with a much broader definition, describing it as any case of a single word governing two or more other parts of the sentence.

Under this broader definition, the following is an example of zeugma:
  • Lee likes pies, and Mark, scones.
Let's look at the original:
  • Lee likes pies, and Mark likes scones.
This can be described as a parallelism because the structure of the two clauses is the same. As the clauses share the same verb (likes), there's an opportunity to remove one of the likes without losing the meaning. This technique is called ellipsis.
(NB: When using ellipsis, it'll help your readers if you put a comma where the removed word used to be. There's more on this to come.). Here are two real-life, commonly cited examples:

Example 1:

  • Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend. (Sir Francis Bacon)
  • (In full, this would have been written: "Histories make men wise, poets make men witty, the mathematics make men subtle, natural philosophy makes men deep, moral makes men grave, and logic and rhetoric make men able to contend." Under the broader definition, it's an example of zeugma.)

Example 2:

  • Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason. (Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero)
  • (This is another example of ellipsis in a parallelism. The commas replace the shared word conquered. Under the broader definition, it's an example of zeugma.)
We can't talk about zeugma without talking about syllepsis because the world's grammarians have been arguing over the distinction between the two terms for decades. Nowadays, it's safe to think of zeugma and syllepsis as interchangeable. (The term syllepsis is much rarer than zeugma – probably because zeugma sounds like a cool alien planet, while syllepsis sounds like a disease.)

Syllepsis is most commonly seen in the terms grammatical syllepsis and semantic syllepsis.

Grammatical Syllepsis

The term grammatical syllepsis is used when the single word is appropriate for only one of words it works with. Remember this example?
  • Wage neither war nor peace. wrong cross
Grammatical syllepsis can also occur with ellipsis.
  • We like beer; Lee, shandy. wrong cross
  • (The word like is only appropriate for We. It's not appropriate for Lee. Lee likes shandy would be accurate.)

Semantic Syllepsis

The term semantic syllepsis is used when the single word is used in a different sense with each of the words it relates to. Remember this example?
  • The castaways grew bamboo, beans and bored.

Why Zeugma Is Important

It's rare to find an error involving a zeugma that creates a logical or grammatical mistake. Nevertheless, it's worth checking that any word that relates to two or more parts of your sentence is appropriate for all parts, especially when writing long sentences.

That said, there are two good reasons to care about zeugma.

(Reason 1) Zeugma can be used to entertain, to inspire deeper thinking, or to create shock.

Zeugma to Entertain:

  • She aroused curiosity and men.

Zeugma to Inspire Deeper Thinking:

  • Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.
  • (An early version of Cicero's quotation read "Lust got the better of shame, audacity subdued fear, and mad passion conquered reason." It's the same message, but the zeugmatic version inspires deeper thinking.)

Zeugma to Shock:

  • You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit. (An extract from Star Trek: The Next Generation)
When your shared word is used literally and figuratively, your sentence will usually read better when the literal element is first.
  • That wave sank my yacht and my dreams.
  • I held her hand and my tongue.
Putting the literal element second, however, can be useful for creating shock.

(Reason 2) Punctuate zeugma in a parallelism correctly.

There is notable leniency on how to punctuate zeugma in a parallelism, but it is good practice to use punctuation that would be acceptable if it were written in full. For example:
  • Lee likes cakes, and Mark scones. correct tick
  • Mr. and Mrs. Morland were all compliance, and Catherine all happiness. (Jane Austen) correct tick
  • The first two are bad motives, the third a good, and the last a mixed one. (Henry Fowler) correct tick
  • Lee likes cakes, and Mark, scones. correct tick
  • (It is not uncommon to see a comma where the shared word (likes in this example) would have been. This can sometimes help with readability.)
From a punctuation perspective, here's another acceptable version:
  • Lee likes cakes; Mark, scones.
  • (This example is grammatically sound, but it looks awful, and readers would likely stutter when reading it. We haven't given it a correct tick. It's too unwieldy.)
So, there's an aesthetics aspect too (i.e., it's important how the sentence looks and flows).

If we stick solely to the punctuation rules, then these examples are all mistakes (specifically comma faults).
  • Lee likes cakes, Mark scones.
  • He works his work, I mine. (An extract from "Ulysses" by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson)
  • The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. (Indian novelist Vikram Seth)
  • (Even though these would be comma faults if written in full, they achieve the desired zeugmatic effect well.)
The bottom line is that you have a choice. You can create a grammatically sound but ugly sentence, or you can create a grammatically flawed (arguably) but aesthetically pleasing sentence. That leniency is yours to enjoy. Go. Enjoy.
  • Lee likes cakes; Mark, scones.
  • "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." (Irish poet Oscar Wilde)
  • (These two sentences are grammatically sound but ugly.)
  • Lee likes cakes, Mark scones.
  • "Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go."
  • (These two are grammatically flawed but beautiful.)

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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