A to Z Day 26: Zeugma


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Zeugma is a fun word to say, and a fairly simple concept, but the explanation is a bit complicated, so I’m borrowing one more definition from Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman University.

ZEUGMA (Greek “yoking” or “bonding”): Artfully using a single verb to refer to two different objects in an ungrammatical but striking way, or artfully using an adjective to refer to two separate nouns, even though the adjective would logically only be appropriate for one of the two. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Fluellen cries, “Kill the boys and the luggage.” (The verb kill normally wouldn’t be applied to luggage, so it counts a zeugma.) If the resulting grammatical construction changes the verb’s initial meaning but is still grammatically correct, the zeugma is sometimes called syllepsis–though in actual practice, most critics use the general term zeugma to include both the grammatical and ungrammatical types interchangeably. Examples of these syllepses and zeugmas abound–particulary in seventeenth-century literature:

“If we don’t hang together, we shall hang separately!” (Ben Franklin).
“The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea.”
“. . . losing her heart or her necklace at the ball.” (Alexander Pope).

I only excerpted enough examples to give you a feel for the concept. You can find more examples, and a detailed discussion of how zeugma are categorized, in Dr. Wheeler’s glossary entry at the  link. (I find the glossary helpful, and it includes some very interesting terms, so I may link it to my resources page next time I update pages.)

Charles Dickens was particularly adept at the art of zeugma (somewhere he has a character “taking his hat and his leave,” and Dr. Wheeler has two more examples from Dickens). I think it’s a potentially useful technique, because it’s a way to create striking sentences. The potential pitfall is that zeugma can come across as silly if it’s not used adroitly, and silly is only good if you’re using silliness on purpose. Here’s an off-the cuff example, building from Dickens:

After Thanksgiving dinner, Rodney took leave of his parents and his senses.

It could be better, I’m sure, but it serves to demonstrate the principle. That’s a good first line for a story, if you can follow it up with a hook in the very next sentence. I think you’ll find that choosing verbs which are easily applied to a wide variety of contexts (took, looked, and ran, for example) is the key to writing good zeugma.

Thanks to everyone who followed during the challenge and read my posts this month. I’ll confess that it’s been gruelling at times, but I’ve gotten a lot out of it, and would certainly do it again. I’ll have a final update to my page and a reflection on the challenge at some point.

A to Z badge by Jeremy of Being Retro


10 thoughts on “A to Z Day 26: Zeugma

  1. I occasionally see people doing super short stories – probably a growing trend with social media – and I feel like a Zeugma would be a really strong technique to use for that. Much like your idea of using one as the first line of a story – it would be a powerful first line in a story that is only a few lines long! Or even only one sentence with a Zeugma?!?

    Clearly we are now going to have to do a super short story writing event on Twitter.


    • Well, since you said that, I’m a fan of six-word stories. I and several of my friends geeked out on them for a couple of weeks about a year before we started blogging.

      Just went googling to make sure six was the right number, and lo and behold ! Found this:


      I think super shorts would be an awesome thing to do on twitter.


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  3. Pingback: Things I know now that I didn’t know on April 1: An A to Z Reflection | The Writing Catalog

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