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The following joke is well-known for its ambiguity, with some variation in the animals used:

Would you rather a bear ate you or a snake?

When the answerer responds something along the lines of, "Uh, I guess I'd rather be eaten by the bear…" the asker finishes with the sentence,

I'd rather he ate the snake.

My question is, is this joke an example of a zeugma?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

Mere zeugma is not the crux of the joke. Rather, the joke works because the zeugma moves.

  • In the first instance of zeugma, in the assumed construction, ate joins the bear and the snake—would you rather a bear [ate you] or a snake ate you?
  • In the second instance of zeugma, in the punch line, ate joins you and the snake—would you rather a bear ate you or [ate] a snake?

It is therefore not an instance of syllepsis (which is the other thing you could mean when you ask if the joke is an example of zeugma). In syllepsis, a word is applied differently to two things, whereas here the same word is applied equally to both, in both instances.

Note: I'm using Wikipedia's definitions of zeugma and syllepsis. The NOAD synonymizes the two, and I wasn't keen on spending a lot of time on M-W to determine the subtle differences that that source recognizes.

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Nice response. In answer to your last paragraph: As far as I can tell from Wikipedia, syllepses are simply zeugmata which use different definitions of the same verb for humorous effect. – timothymh Mar 29 '12 at 20:48
That is what I would say. My understanding from Wikipedia is that zeugma(ta?) are rather common and not necessarily humourous or in incongruous. – zpletan Mar 29 '12 at 20:51
Ditto. It sounded to me from your comment like you were saying that syllepses are different from zeugma(ta/s). – timothymh Mar 29 '12 at 20:55
Different in that syllepsis is a subset of zeugma. – zpletan Mar 29 '12 at 21:00

Yes. Quoting from Bang! Writing with Impact (which discusses this strategy):

With Zeugma, you use one noun to refer to multiple verbs, multiple nouns to refer to one verb, one verb to refer to multiple direct objects, etc. Basically, one word (the linking word) is linked to multiple words and phrases (the linked words). The result is that the reader recognizes the connections between the multiple linked word.

This strategy has an artistic flair that will be lost if overused.
“The man turned, ran, and fell.” [The linking word is “man.”] “The man, the boy, and the dog walked away.” [The linking word is “walked.”] “The dog ate a steak, a tomato, a biscuit, and a slice of pie.” [The linking word is “ate.”]

Now, in the first line of your joke, the linking word is "ate," and the linking words are "bear" and "snake." You have 1 verb linking two nouns, so this is Zeugma.

This works because the statement is elliptical, i.e., it has implied words. The full statement is "Would you rather a bear ate you or a snake ate you.

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The joke uses the same techniques that zeugma does, but I wouldn't formally call this a zeugma or syllepsis.

First the difference between zeugma and syllepsis: syllepsis is a particular form of zeugma as zleptan noted. Zeugma is an ellipsis with parallelism in general; syllepsis is a zeugma where the parallelism involves amphiboly (multiple senses) in the common word, switching grammar or semantics.

For general zeugma:

As Virgil guided Dante through Inferno, the Sibyl Aeneas Avernus (Roger D. Scott, from Silva Rhetoricae, zeugma )

the parallelism is Virgil to Sibyl, Dante to Aeneas and Inferno to Avernus, eliding 'guide' and 'through'.

For syllepsis,

You held your breath and the door for me (Alannis Morisette Silva Rhetoricae, syllepsis )

'breath' and 'door' are parallel and 'held' is elided, but 'held means two slightly different things in the parallel unelided statements.

Now to the original question. In the joke, the question is ambiguous (which of the subject or object is being asked about) and parallel (only 'the snake' is used, not the verb or other noun). The response resolves the (unexpected) ambiguity.

I would call this syllepsis, because 'snake' is ambiguous as either the subject or the direct object.

So yes, it really can be said to be zeugma (and more specifically syllepsis).

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Are you sure it can't be said to have ellipsis? Would you rather a bear ate you or ate a snake? Or even Would you rather a bear ate you or a bear ate a snake? The full form of the other meaning would be Would you rather a bear ate you or a snake ate you? – Daniel Mar 30 '12 at 15:19
Good point. Yes, the question has ellipsis. I'll update. – Mitch Mar 30 '12 at 15:30

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