Paraprosdokian occurs when the writer does something at the end of a sentence or phrase that’s unexpected. Readers should be taken off guard by choice. It might just be a surprising or dramatic turn, or it might be humorous in another instance. The literary device usually means that readers will need to reinterpret the beginning of the sentence or phrase. It should change the meaning in a noticeable way.
Definition of Paraprosdokian
Paraprosdokian comes from the Greek meaning “beyond expectation,” a definition that clearly relates to the surprising features paraprosdokian can bring to a literary work. It is used to create humor and surprise the reader by imbuing a sentence with a new meaning. In some instances, humor plays a role in the sentence, but there is a deeper, more interesting meaning to be found as well. For example, Winston Churchill’s quote:
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing— after they have tried everything else.
The second part of this sentence comes as a surprise and brings with it humor and concern for American problem solving on the world stage. There is another great example by Albert Einstein that also demonstrates how paraprosdokian can be used to convey a deeper message alongside humor:
The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.
This is clearly meant to make the listener/reader laugh, but it also suggests something about the nature of genius and stupidity. Readers should walk away from it with a better understanding of Einstein’s wit and the capabilities of wisdom and stupidity.
Examples of Paraprosdokian in Literature
Unfortunate Coincidence by Dorothy Parker
‘Unfortunate Coincidence’ is a great example of a poem that uses paraprosdokian. It’s quite a short piece, only six lines long. It uses the second person, addressing a female listener. The speaker tells her that by the time she’s swearing, she’s “his,” and he swears his passion is “undying” that “One of you is lying.” Here is how the last three lines play out:
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
The perfect rhyme with “undying” and “lying” is a great connection. It’s clear that this was always meant to be the ending, making it fit even more smoothly into the poem’s structure. It’s also delivered as an unavoidable truth, creating humor and making the reader think at the same time. It’s unclear whether or not the poet meant to direct this poem to a specific person or was interested in speaking to women as a whole.
Read more Dorothy Parker poems.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
In this humor-filled and satirical novel, Adams adapts the first four parts of a radio series with the same name. In one passage, Adams depicts aliens coming to destroy the earth and using the following humorous phrase:
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
The transition from ships to bricks should take the reader off guard. There was no evidence that this was a simile that the writer was going to use.
Shelter by Charles Stuart Calverley
In this less commonly read poem, the poet uses paraprosdokian in his verse. In the poem’s first two lines, the speaker describes a “fair thing, with a shy, soft eye.” The poet sets up the next lines to build off of the suggestion that he’s writing about a woman. He speaks about “her thoughts” and “fairy feet.” Finally, at the end of the second stanza, he uses these lines:
Whither now will retreat those fairy feet?
Where hide till the storm pass by?
On the lake where the alders sigh …
For she was a water-rat.
The last line reveals that he’s speaking about a “water-rat,” perhaps the very opposite of a beautiful woman. This should make the reader pause and reconsider everything they previously read.
Why Do Writers Use Paraprosdokian?
Writers use paraprosdokian when they want to create a comedic moment in their writing. While it might be used in some instances for pure humor, such as in the case of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are moments in which it’s used to make the reader laugh and then stop and think about what they’ve read. Such is the case with the previously quoted lines from Churchill and Einstein. These examples convey their skill with language in addition to their wit and insight into the world.
There are other times a writer might choose to use paraprosdokian in order to create a dramatic effect. It can surprise the reader with a piece of information they weren’t expecting that changes the entire narrative. On the other hand, it might provide readers with an anti-climax. It could bring the story screeching to a halt. While it is often used skillfully and interestingly, it’s possible to find examples of this literary device used clumsily. While the writer might’ve intended to create humor, the joke could fall flat or not make sense when considered, along with the broader style of the rest of the work.
Related Literary Terms
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Farce: a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.
- Humor: a literary device that writers use in order to make their readers or audience members laugh. It should be entertaining.
- Limerick: a humorous poem that follows a fixed structure of five lines and a rhyme scheme of AABBA.