Zeugma

This is another in my occasional posts about rhetorical flourishes and devices that we may chose to employ to make our writing stronger (stronger, not easier to read).

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A zeugma is the arrangement of two or more parts of a sentence, joined by a common noun or verb. Often, the common word has a different meaning for each word it joins, and it provides an elegant economy of language that can stick in the reader’s mind.

“She opened her door and her heart to the hungry kitten.” This is a zeugma (actually a prozeugma). The “door” and the “heart” are joined by “opened” and by doing so, the writer creates a memorable phrase that emphasizes the moment of compassion the character has felt.

The common word may occur before, after, or between the parts of the sentence it joins. Thus “Used bookstores will survive the digital age, as will book readers,” is a zeugma. So is “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Often, when you leave the joining word (generally a verb) until the end, you can surprise your reader with the meaning you’ve kept hidden until then. “The piggy bank, the stock market, and her dreams fell with a crash.” What is common about those three things? The reader will want to know. And by joining them, you show how the unexpected can be connected.

I recently found this powerful zeugma in an Iris Murdoch novel: “She left him childless and long ago.”

One of the best known string of sentences in the English language is actually a hypozeuxis, which is the opposite of a zeugma: “We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”

I think it could be easy to overuse zeugmas in one’s writing, but the occasional and judicious use of them can achieve an effect and show you to be a thoughtful writer.

You can read more than you’ll probably ever want to know about the zeugma in its many varieties at this Wikipedia article.

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