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What Is a Zeugma?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A zeugma is a type of clause in which a single verb or noun is used to govern several parts within it. One way in which this can be formed is when a verb is used with a number of nouns, even though the verb is only stated a single time. This can also be created using a single noun and multiple verbs that are used and governed by this noun. There is a particular type of zeugma referred to as a syllepsis that uses a single governing noun or verb that adopts different meanings based on the other phrases.

The way in which a zeugma is formed is fairly simple, as a single part of a phrase is used repeatedly to govern other parts even though it is not actually repeated. One common way in which this is created is through a verb that is used once explicitly, and then implied in other phrases. A prozeugma, for example, is a clause in which the governing verb is stated at the beginning and implied repeatedly such as “He ate a hamburger, she a salad, their son a serving of French fries, and the family dog a large bone.” In this example, the verb “ate” is stated only once, but in each following phrase it is suggested and used through the omission of repetitive words.

Other types of zeugma include a hypozeugma, in which the governing verb appears at the end of a clause. An example of this would be, “He with a smile, she with a laugh, the boy with a skip, and the girl walked with a whistle on her lips.” Mesozeugma is a clause in which the governing verb appears in the middle of the sentence. This can be found in a sentence like, “He gladly, she slowly, they walked together, their son in zigzags, and their daughter backward.”

In contrast to these, there are also types of zeugma that are formed through the use of a governing noun, with verbs that refer to it. This is referred to as a diazeugma and the noun can be located at any point in the clause, though it is often found at the beginning for the sake of clarity. An example of this type of zeugma would be, “The man and woman walked together, laughed merrily, danced and ran in the rain, then parted ways at midnight.” In this example, the noun phrase “the man and woman” is the governing noun that is referred to by each verb phrase that follows.

There is a specific form of zeugma called syllepsis that uses a governing noun or verb that takes on different meanings between two or more phrases. For example, syllepsis can be formed in a statement like “He lost his keys, his wallet, and his mind.” In this example, the governing verb “lost” refers to the fact that the subject, “He,” has misplaced his keys and wallet, but for the last phrase the meaning changes to a colloquialism. Syllepsis is often used for ironic or comedic effect as the change in meaning is frequently unexpected.

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