One pattern I find interesting is using a word in an explicit double sense, leading to a self-reference kind of pun. For example:

As is the case with such things, however, military intelligence wasn't. [From example of oxymoron]

Stupidity is. [Emphasis]

Tool: implements for work that don't. [From TMRC]

I invite you to verify that these facts are.

This sort of usage is playful, but not standard usage. Yet, they express something in both a more interesting and perhaps more meaningful way: by combining the meanings into one sentence, the juxtaposition seems more obvious to me.

My questions are:

  1. Does this sort of construction have a name?
  2. What typographical conventions would you recommend for its use?

With regard to question 2., there are conflicting views that I would like addressed specifically.

On the one hand, we want clarity--and since writing is about expression, one might try to make the example reflect speech:

I invite you to verify that these facts . . . are.

I invite you to verify that these facts are.

This also helps ensure that the sentence is not mistaken for a mistake and the double meaning lost. It also helps prevent the wording from tripping up or being entirely missed by the casual reader.

My last example in particular demonstrates this last concern well: a native speaker expects an adjectival phrase. E.g. ". . . these facts are correct." However, when that doesn't occur, the reader runs into the full stop like a brick wall.

This is why, on the other hand, I feel like lack of specific attention could actually be a Good Thing.

The parse failure the reader undergoes when reading the original sentence forces them to reevaluate the entire thing, which is closer to the original goal of imparting two meanings. If careless readers' lack of attention causes them to overlook the subtlety, then perhaps they wouldn't have appreciated the nuance anyway.

  • I wouldn't lik to say whether it's a form of zeugma or not - but if not, it's at least similar Nov 14, 2014 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


I don't know the name for this literary device, assuming that it has one. But I have a few thoughts about using it and about handling it typographically.

First, it seems to me that the device works much better in negative situations than in positive ones. That is, the title

The Truth That Wasn't

is, I think, at least as likely to be to recognized as meaning "The Truth That Wasn't the Truth" as to be interpreted to mean, for example, "The Truth That Never Existed." But the title

The Truth That Was

doesn't suggest to me the meaning "The Truth That Was the Truth" nearly as strongly as it does the meaning "The Truth That Was but No Longer Is." Furthermore, I can't think of any typographical treatment of the title that would reverse the relative strength of the two interpretations.

Likewise, the two positive examples you give above ("Stupidity is" and "I invite you to verify that these facts are") seem to me to be much harder to recognize for what they are than the two negative examples. ("Military intelligence wasn't" and "Implements for work that don't")

So my first suggestion is that you use great caution in presenting positive instances of this device, in view of the likelihood that a reader won't understand them unless they are set up particularly well.

My second suggestion is that you make a serious effort to achieve a true match between the omitted element and the element that you intend to repeat.

For example,

The Ukrainian government and the Donetsk rebels agreed on a ceasefire that wasn't.

involves a more precise match than does

As is the case with such things, however, military intelligence wasn't.

In the former case, the omitted words are "a ceasefire," and thus accurately echo the earlier words. But in the latter case, the omitted word is (probably) "intelligent." The farther the omitted word or words stray from the form in which they appeared earlier in the sentence, the harder it will be for a reader to appropriately fill in the blank—or even to realize that the author intended to set up a blank for the reader to fill in.

As for typographical treatment, I think that the best course is to present the sentence without special punctuation or typeface. Attempting to emphasize the humorous twist by calling attention to it through the use of italics or ellipsis points or some other special treatment is likely to come across as heavy-handed at best, and at worst it may strike a reader as a form of preening. Also, if the sentence handles the self-referential pun poorly, no amount of special treatment will make the intended sense clearer; instead, it will just make a baffling sentence seem more brazenly baffling.

If you've set up the sentence well and it flows naturally to the surprise ending, I think you're best advised to let the language speak for itself, without fanfare.

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