From 'fishing' for compliments to 'sinking' dreams, add these 'zeugmas' to your vocabulary

A figure of speech in which a word, usually a verb or an adjective, applies to more than one noun, blending together grammatically and logically different ideas

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 23 May 2024, 10:07 PM

Every once in a while, English grammar throws up a term that doesn’t even sound like English. Here’s one: Zeugma, from a Greek word meaning “yoking” or “bonding,” is a figure of speech in which a word, usually a verb or an adjective, applies to more than one noun, blending together grammatically and logically different ideas. For instance, in the sentence, “Rana lost his raincoat and his temper,” the verb “lost” applies to both the nouns “raincoat” and “temper”. Losing a raincoat and losing your temper are logically and grammatically different ideas, which are brought together in this sentence. That’s zeugma.

English literature offers plenty of examples of Zeugma. The poet Alexander Pope wrote of Queen Anne: “Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,/Dost sometimes Counsel take — and sometimes Tea.” Tennyson’s zeugma is pitch-perfect: “The moment and the vessel passed.” Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer talks of people who “covered themselves with dust and glory”. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers wrote of how “Miss Bolo […] went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.” In Oliver Twist, Dickens describes a character “alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey”. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house… where the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress”.

For a more recent example we have Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses: “We were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.” And to be even more contemporary, here’s a zeugma from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.” The word “execute” applies to both laws and citizens. The speaker could have said, “You are free to execute your laws and execute your citizens as you see fit.” However, using the zeugma makes for a punchier sentence that has the power to shock.

Zeugma can make banal ideas more interesting, even entertaining: “He fished for trout and compliments.” “Every time he went out with her, he had to open his mind and his wallet.” “She opened the door and her heart to the homeless child.” “In quick succession, Shazia lost her job, her house and her mind.” “By the end of the first day of their summer vacation, she had already exhausted her kids and her patience.” Or the classic: “All over Ireland, the farmers grew potatoes, barley and bored.” Zeugma links unrelated terms — mental with moral, abstract with physical, high with low — and thus generates surprise and, therefore, effect.

As a literary device, the zeugma serves the function of sharpening your style and making simple ideas more readable. For example, imagine you are writing of someone who invested his life savings in a boat, planning a lifetime of enjoyment on the water, took it out to sea on Day One, was hit by a storm and watched in dismay as the boat capsized and sank to the bottom. You could write, “His boat sank in the storm. He could no longer fulfil his dreams.” Or you could resort to a zeugma and write, “The storm sank his boat and his dreams.” Which do you think most readers would find more effective?

While we are being grammatical, let’s also differentiate zeugma from “syllepsis”. Like zeugma, syllepsis also uses a single verb for more than one part in a sentence, but here that single verb applies grammatically and logically to only one. For example, in the Biblical sentence, Exodus 20:18, “And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking”, the verb “saw” is logically correct only for the lightning and the smoking —you can only hear thundering and trumpeting! That’s syllepsis. So is Tennyson’s line from Ulysses, “He works his work, I mine”, as the verb “works” is grammatically correct with the first-person pronoun “he”, but is incorrect with “I” — you can’t say “I works mine.”

But unless you’re a grammarian, the difference is trivial. As long as it works, it doesn’t matter. Or to use a zeugma, let’s drop our red pencils and our pretensions...

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