Paraprosdokians: 24 hilariously unexpected sentences

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 14 Oct 2021, 7:03 PM

Paraprosdokian comes from two Greek words, “para” meaning “against” and “prosdokia” meaning “expectation”. A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase, or larger statement, is surprising or unexpected, in a way that prompts the reader or hearer to rethink the first part or understand it differently. My favourite paraprosdokian comes from the comedian Bob Monkhouse: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my father, not screaming and terrified like his passengers.”

As that example suggests, paraprosdokians are frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect — “Today a man knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.” Groucho Marx loved using paraprosdokians for their anticlimaxes: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” I forget who said, “The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on the list.”

Paraprosdokians are particularly popular among stand-up comedians: “When I was 10, I beat up the school bully. His arms were in casts. That’s what gave me the courage.” Or “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” Marriage offers fertile ground: “My wife and I were happy for twenty-five years; then we met.” And how about “Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.”?!

Satirists can excel at paraprosdokians: what better way to skewer the pretensions of society? “She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.” Or more notoriously: “I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.” These days people will observe: “Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.” As cuttingly: “When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.” Most memorably: “Going to a temple doesn’t make you a Hindu any more than standing in a garage makes you a car”.

A good use of paraprosdokians is to send up the conventional wisdom people like to inflict on you. “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.” Or: “If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.” Subverting cliches is best done with paraprosdokians: “He who laughs last thinks slowest.” Or “Hospitality is the art of making guests feel like they’re at home, when you wish they were.” Another old favourite is: “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” A particularly clever one in this genre is: “Take my advice; I’m not using it.” I’m still awed by the brilliance of “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”. Or the timeless “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”

Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of the first part of an observation, but also play on the meaning of a particular word: “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” Or “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.” Better still: “I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.” That’s why they say that “the pun is the lowest form of humour — when you don’t think of it first”.

Perhaps the greatest craftsman of paraprosdokians was the immortal P.G. Wodehouse. A mere sentence was not enough for him; his best examples built up slowly and at length. “Myrtle Prosser was a woman of considerable but extremely severe beauty. She . . . suggested rather one of those engravings of the mistresses of Bourbon kings which make one feel that the monarchs who selected them must have been men of iron, impervious to fear — or else short-sighted.”

And that’s probably enough paraprosdokians for the week. I’m great at multi-tasking — I can waste time, be unproductive, and procrastinate all at once. But I must end this column. After all, a bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station...

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