Friday, July 29, 2011

Zeugma: It Just Sounds Like the Title of a Woody Allen Movie

Alanis Morissette sang, “You held your breath and the door for me,” exquisitely capturing--in nine single-syllable words--how a suitor cherishes his beloved. Morissette also captures the art of zeugma in that lyric.

Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word governs two that are not often associated with one another. In Morissette’s example, the verb held governs both breath and door to invent an effective image for how smitten both she and her lover are.

Internet sites use a quotation from the final lines of Lord of the Flies to illustrate zeugma: Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy. Golding’s word choices and word order are poignant and powerful; zeugma helps him accomplish these effects. The verb wept governs a series of prepositional phrases: 1) for the end of innocence, 2) [for] the darkness of man’s heart, and 3) [for] the fall through the air of . . . . Ralph weeps for two concepts and one very real, tangible event.

Writing Challenge:

Using Morissette and Golding, imitate their sentence patterns to invent entirely new and powerful sentences of your own. For example:

You took your clothes and my heart with you.


The farmer mourned the loss of verdant fields, of deep dark pools of water, of the life he’d built over fifty sun-burnt, calloused years.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read “The Things They Carried,” the titular story from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Note the uses of zeugma. Use them as patterns to invent more original passages of your own.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Often, a zeugmatic construction is not grammatically tidy. Consider this illustration for zeugma from John Lyons: She arrived in a taxi and a flaming rage.

Technically, no one arrives in a rage. We may arrive with an attitude of rage, but we do not travel in a cloud of rage--except, of course, metaphorically. Thus, zeugma may be idiomatic, metaphorical, or figurative instead of grammatical.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.