Breaking Down Paraprosdokian

Image portraying paraprosdokian

Paraprosdokian (derives from Greek combination “παρά” (against) and “προσδοκία” (expectation), literally means “against expectation” ), is a figure of speechOpens in new window in which the latter part of a clauseOpens in new window or sentence Opens in new window is introduced with an array of surprising twists in such degree as to compel the audience (reader or listener) to pause and reframe or reinterprete the first part. This is deliberately used chiefly to achieve humor and dramatic effect which tend to result in anti-climaxOpens in new window.

A paraprosdokian sentence usually consists two parts, the first is a figure of speech Opens in new window and the second an intriguing variation of the first.

Typically, Paraprosdokians are used to create humourOpens in new window, and add elegance to a piece of work to bring about a dramatic effect. Thus, the statement:

  • “Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.”

is an example of paraprosdokian. Below are other examples that might compel you to act the paraprosdokian way — looking back and reframing the sentence while you are reading along.

  • A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.
  • Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
  • If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
    War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
  • Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
  • Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
  • How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?
  • Evening news is where they begin with 'Good evening' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.
  • A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.
  • Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.
  • And finally, I can't help but add this lovely poem “The Owl Critic” by James T. FieldsOpens in new window to the collection; notice the unexpected shifts in its expression capable of altering and developing your thoughts as you read along.

  • “Who stuffed that white owl?”
    No one spoke in the shop,
    The barber was busy, and he couldn't stop;
    The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
    The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
    The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
    Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
    And the barber kept on shaving.
    “Don't you see, Mr. Brown,”
    Cried the youth, with a frown,
    “How wrong the whole thing is,
    How preposterous each wing is,
    How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is --
    In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck 't is!
    I make no apology;
    I've learned owl-eology.
    I've passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
    And cannot be blinded to any deflections
    Arising from unskilful fingers that fail
    To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
    Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
    Do take that bird down,
    Or you'll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
    And the barber kept on shaving.
    “I've studied owls,
    And other night-fowls,
    And I tell you
    What I know to be true;
    An owl cannot roost
    With his limbs so unloosed;
    No owl in this world
    Ever had his claws curled,
    Ever had his legs slanted,
    Ever had his bill canted,
    Ever had his neck screwed
    Into that attitude.
    He cant do it, because
    'Tis against all bird-laws.”
  • — (James T. Fields, The Owl Critic)

For reason of its dramatic effect, paraprosdokian is often found in comic and satirical works. As observable in the examples we have witnessed above, some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but they also play on the double meaning of a particular word, creating a kind of syllepsisOpens in new window.

Further Readings:
Arnold Melnick, DO; Melnick On Writing: An anthology of columns from the American Medical Writers Association Journal. | Paraprosdokian (pg.177)Opens in new window Wikipedia | ParaprosdokianOpens in new window All Poetry | The Owl Critic by James T. FieldOpens in new window