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What Is Zeugma? (with Examples)

What Is Zeugma? (with Examples)

Zeugma is using a word (usually a verb) to act with two or more parts of the sentence. Zeugma can be an everyday construction, a quirky construction for impact, or a grammatical or logical mistake. For example:
  • Tommy lost his wallet and his phone.
  • (This is everyday zeugma. The verb lost is acting with wallet and phone.)
  • 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.)
    (This is also called semantic syllepsis.)
  • Tommy injured his arm and his meal.
  • (The verb injured is acting with arm and meal. It is difficult to see (even figuratively) how a meal can be injured. This is a logical mistake. This rarely happens in simple constructions. However, it is more common in more complicated sentences.)
    (This is also called grammatical syllepsis.)

Examples of Zeugma

Here are some more examples of zeugma in the form of semantic syllepsis:
  • 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.)

Zeugma in a Parallelism

Zeugma can also feature in a parallelism. Here is an example of a parallelism:
  • Lee likes cakes. Mark likes scones.
This is a parallelism because the sentence structures are the same. You will also notice that they share the same verb likes. This gives us the opportunity to use zeugma. For example:
  • Lee likes cakes; Mark, scones.
In this example, the period () / full stop () has become a semicolon. This is fine. There appears to be notable leniency on how to punctuate zeugma in a parallelism, but it is good practice to use punctuation which would be acceptable if it were written it full. For example:
  • Lee likes cakes, Mark scones.
  • (This would be a comma fault if it were written in full. We judge you would get away with a comma in this zeugma version, but we've given it a cross as it relies on your readers' leniency to be acceptable.)
  • Lee likes cakes, and Mark scones.
  • Lee likes cakes, and Mark, scones.
  • (It is common to use a comma where the shared word (likes in this example) would have been. This helps the reader. It is advised.)
Here is a more complicated, commonly cited example:
  • 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.")
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