Understanding the Structure of Zeugma

Zeugma (derives from Greek, meaning ‘yoke’ ), is a figure concerned with syntactical construction by which a word stands in the same relation to two other words, but with a different meaning.

See, for example:

    “The farmers grew broccoli and bored”

    (In this construction, ‘grew’ is the zeugma as it yokes or governs together ‘broccoli’ and ‘bored’.)

The structure of Zeugma contains a certain syntactic category, typically a verbOpens in new window or an adjectiveOpens in new window, which governs a “catalog” of (at least) two other syntactic categories (typically nouns), one of which is literal while the other is metaphorically related to the predicate.

George PuttenhamOpens in new window distinguished the figure zeugma into ProzeugmaOpens in new window (also known as the Ringleader), MesozeugmaOpens in new window (the Middlemarcher), and HypozeugmaOpens in new window (the Rearwarder), in accordance with the zeugma (or yoking word) taking position at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of construction respectively.

Meanwhile, another form of zeugma is the diazeugmaOpens in new window which uses a single subject to govern a series of multiple verbs.

Closely related to Zeugma (to the point that they are sometimes treated as one) are the figures ‘syllepsisOpens in new window’ (Greek for ‘a taking together’), and ‘ellipsisOpens in new window’ (Greek for ‘to fall short’). Syllepsis is particularly so close that it’s often considered a synonym to zeugma. The dictionary says that in a syllepsis the various clauses, which are often in the form of a punOpens in new window, don’t necessarily make sense. For this reason it’s sometimes said that a syllepsis is a union of incongruous elements, which accounts for its popularity in comic or satiric situations. However, that description is equally true of the figure zeugma. — (Roger Horberry, Sounds Good on Paper: How to Bring Business Language to Life. A&C Black, 1 May 2010)

Notable Examples of Zeugma

  1. “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.”

    — Marcus Tullius Cicero. (Prozeugma)

  2. And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

    — (Mesozeugma)

  3. Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind.

    — (Hypozeugma)

  4. The Romans destroyed Numantia, razed Carthage, obliterated Corinth, overthrew Fregellae.

    — Ad Herennium (Diazeugma)

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