The word can be interpreted literally in one instance and in another, interpreted figuratively. Or, in another iteration, a single word might have two very different meanings, and readers should understand them both. This type of figurative language is often used to create a surprising or novel construction for the reader. Zeugma can be humorous or interesting.
Definition of Zeugma
Zeugma is an interesting literary device that refers to examples of words with different meanings or interpretations. The word in question is usually a verb or adjective, although it is also sometimes a noun. When used well, it can create thoughtful, creative, and sometimes funny sentences and images. For example, “Cathy temporarily misplaced her car keys and her sanity.” Here, the word “misplaced” (a verb) is used to describe losing a physical object and an ephemeral state. These very different ideas are unified through the different ways the word “misplaced” can be used.
Zeugma and Syllepsis
It’s important to draw a distinction between zeugma and syllepsis. The latter is a form of zeugma. It uses a single word in different ways, but the word is only grammatically correct in one instance of its use. For example, “He saw the police cars and their sirens go past.” In this sentence, the word “saw” is used to describe “police cars” and “sirens,” but, it only makes grammatical sense for the first word. “He” can’t see “sirens,” he can only hear them. Some scholars believe that the term “syllepsis” only confuses matters and that readers are better off considering the ungrammatical iterations types of zeugma as well.
Examples of Zeugma
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
This interesting use of language includes “take,” which is applied to “tea” and “counsel.” This is a great example of how the word can be used in very different ways.
Read more Alexander Pope poems.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a classic novel written by Twain and published in 1876, there is a good example of zeugma. The novel follows a boy growing up in the 1840s in Missouri. He has adventures and travels with his friend Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s book was an incredible success, in part due to his style and voice. Consider these lines:
In an instant both boys were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other’s hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other’s noses, and covered themselves with dust and glory.
In this long sentence, there is a good example of zeugma towards the end. When the boys were done fighting, they were covered in “dust and glory.” The word “covered” is applied to two very different things.
Read Mark Twain’s poetry.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried is a collection of stories published in 1990 by Tim O’Brien. It details the lives of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. It is also based on his personal experiences. The book often blurs reality and fiction together, using techniques like metafiction and verisimilitude to make it seem as real as possible. One of the reoccurring images O’Brien presents in the novel is of men carrying things. These things are metaphorical as much as they are physical. Consider these lines from the book:
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men
The word “carried” is used in the second line to refer to Jimmy’s burdens. They are a “strobe light” and the “responsibility for the lives of his men.” This is a perfect example of zeugma, and it shows how thoughtful and powerful the device can be. Some of the more obvious examples of the technique use humor. But, that is not always the case. This is not the only passage that uses “carried” in this way. Consider these lines from another section of the book:
But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus an unweighed fear.
Here, O’Brien describes how Lavender carried ammunition, a flak jacket, a helmet, and other physical items that should’ve protected him. He also had “water and toilet paper,” mundane parts of human existence. In the last clause, O’Brien uses zeugma to say that Lavender also carried “an unweighed fear.”
The Holy Bible, Exodus 20:18
In the following lines, attributed to the prophet Moses, there is an interesting example of this literary technique. Consider these lines:
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.
The first part of this sentence is a classic example. The writer says that people “saw the thundering, and the lightning” when it’s only possible to see lightning. This can also be considered an example of syllepsis.
Why Do Writers Use Zeugma?
Writers use zeugma when they want to be more creative with their sentences. This might be in order to keep the reader’s attention, surprise them, or even create a humorous turn of phrase. It can make writing feel more creative and interesting depending on how a writer arranges the wording in a particular sentence.
An example is: “She read the sign and his expression.”
Zeugma refers to the use of a word in two ways. For example, using “carried” to refer to emotional and physical burdens in the same sentence.
It depends on the type of writing. In creative writing they are fairly popular but in academic writing, much less so.
Syllepsis is a type of zeugma. The word refers to examples where a word is used in two different ways. One of them is grammatical and the other isn’t.
Related Literary Terms
- Antanaclasis: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.
- Aphorismus: a figure of speech that occurs when a word’s use is called into question.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Epizeuxis: a figure of speech that occurs when the writer repeats a word or phrase in immediate succession.
- Figure of Speech: created when a writer uses figurative language or that which has another meaning other than its basic definition.
- Hyperbaton: a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.