Zeugma is a fun word to say, and a fairly simple concept, but the explanation is a bit complicated, so I’m borrowing one more definition from Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman University.
ZEUGMA (Greek “yoking” or “bonding”): Artfully using a single verb to refer to two different objects in an ungrammatical but striking way, or artfully using an adjective to refer to two separate nouns, even though the adjective would logically only be appropriate for one of the two. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Fluellen cries, “Kill the boys and the luggage.” (The verb kill normally wouldn’t be applied to luggage, so it counts a zeugma.) If the resulting grammatical construction changes the verb’s initial meaning but is still grammatically correct, the zeugma is sometimes called syllepsis–though in actual practice, most critics use the general term zeugma to include both the grammatical and ungrammatical types interchangeably. Examples of these syllepses and zeugmas abound–particulary in seventeenth-century literature:
“If we don’t hang together, we shall hang separately!” (Ben Franklin).
“The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea.”
“. . . losing her heart or her necklace at the ball.” (Alexander Pope).
I only excerpted enough examples to give you a feel for the concept. You can find more examples, and a detailed discussion of how zeugma are categorized, in Dr. Wheeler’s glossary entry at the link. (I find the glossary helpful, and it includes some very interesting terms, so I may link it to my resources page next time I update pages.)
Charles Dickens was particularly adept at the art of zeugma (somewhere he has a character “taking his hat and his leave,” and Dr. Wheeler has two more examples from Dickens). I think it’s a potentially useful technique, because it’s a way to create striking sentences. The potential pitfall is that zeugma can come across as silly if it’s not used adroitly, and silly is only good if you’re using silliness on purpose. Here’s an off-the cuff example, building from Dickens:
After Thanksgiving dinner, Rodney took leave of his parents and his senses.
It could be better, I’m sure, but it serves to demonstrate the principle. That’s a good first line for a story, if you can follow it up with a hook in the very next sentence. I think you’ll find that choosing verbs which are easily applied to a wide variety of contexts (took, looked, and ran, for example) is the key to writing good zeugma.
Thanks to everyone who followed during the challenge and read my posts this month. I’ll confess that it’s been gruelling at times, but I’ve gotten a lot out of it, and would certainly do it again. I’ll have a final update to my page and a reflection on the challenge at some point.
A to Z badge by Jeremy of Being Retro