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I am confused about what is the relative meaning of zeugma compared to syllepsis, both in its current meaning and possibly in former understandings of these words.

The New Oxford American Dictionary has:

zeugma
a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g., John and his license expired last week) or to two others of which it semantically suits only one (e.g., with weeping eyes and hearts).


syllepsis
a figure of speech in which a word is applied to two others in different senses (e.g., caught the train and a bad cold) or to two others of which it grammatically suits only one (e.g., neither they nor it is working).

According to this, there is some overlap, though zeugma is more about semantics and syllepsis about grammar. Online sources on this issue conflict, with some insisting one the difference (“not to be confused with zeugma”) and others stating that the two have merged.

Can someone offer a clear view of the differences, present or past, between these terms?

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    I thought that Zeugma was a specific case of syllepsis. May 3, 2011 at 13:48

9 Answers 9

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The OED, in the definition of syllepsis reports that's another term for zeugma.

The Collin English Dictionary reports syllepsis means:

(in grammar or rhetoric) the use of a single sentence construction in which a verb, adjective, etc is made to cover two syntactical functions, as the verb form have in "she and they have promised to come."

Also the Collin English Dictionary reports that syllepsis is another word for zeugma (as second meaning).

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I have always understood the difference between zeugma and syllepsis to be that syllepsis is used to create a semantic dissonance with intentionally humorous effect. For example, here is Ambrose Bierce's definition of the word piano from his The Devil's Dictionary

piano n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

Zeugma, on the other hand is supposed to be used for dramatic or felicitous effect. Or so I was told when I studied rhetoric.

The sad fact is, the meanings of these two terms have become inextricably yoked together (ha ha) over the years, blurring the distinctions and our ability to articulate them (again, ha ha).

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    I got the 'yoke' reference but not 'articulate'.
    – Mitch
    May 3, 2011 at 15:34
  • @Mitch: To articulate something means to express it clearly.
    – Robusto
    May 3, 2011 at 16:26
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    @Mitch It was a zeugma.
    – Tuesday
    Mar 29, 2012 at 19:52
  • @Mitch: one meaning of "articulate" is "make clear, distinct, and precise in relation to other parts."
    – Rick
    Apr 17, 2012 at 19:23
  • @Lambie: Maybe I'm old, but in college there were courses offered in it, so I took one.
    – Robusto
    Jun 23, 2022 at 20:56
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Based on the definitions in my first "real" dictionary (New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, 1980), I've always understood zeugma to be the clever one and syllepsis to be the boring one.

zeugma: a figure of speech in which a single word, usually a verb or adjective, is syntactically related to two or more words, with only one of which it seems logically connected (Ex: The room was not light, but his fingers were)

vs

syllepsis: a grammatical construction in which a single word is used to modify or govern syntactically two or more words in the same sentence, though it can grammatically agree with only one of them (Ex.: either they or I am wrong)

Actually, I find I have a cavil with the above definition of zeugma: although it contrasts "logically connected" with an implied "illogically connected," the example illustrates "concrete" vs. "figurative."

Anyway, the point is that, according to these two definitions, syllepsis represents a grammatical strain; zeugma is more of a semantical mixture.

Now, from another "real" dictionary (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, 1971):

zeugma: A figure by which a single word is made to refer to two or more words in the sentence; esp. when properly applying in sense to only one of them, or applying to them in different senses; but formerly more widely, including, e.g., the use of the same predicate, without repetition, with two or more subjects; also sometimes applied to cases of irregular construction, in which the single word agrees grammatically with only one of the other words to which it refers (more properly called Syllepsis).

vs

syllepsis: A figure by which a word, or a particular form or inflexion of a word, is made to refer to two or more other words in the same sentence, while properly applying to or agreeing with only one of them (e.g. a masc. adj. qualifying two sbs., masc. and fem.; a sing. verb serving as predicate to two subjects, sing. and pl.), or applying to them in different senses (e.g., literal and metaphorical).

Here, the overlap between the two words is brought out a bit more; however, the distinction can still be seen: zeugma causes a word to serve double (or more) duty in terms of sense; syllepsis does so in terms of syntax.

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A practical if arbitrary distinction: syllepsis should denote a grammatical incident, for example a disagreement as "None of these texts are known in their original form." [the verb agreeing with "these texts"] instead of "None of these texts is known in its original form." [the verb agreeing with "none"]

The ambiguity could be prevented by the restricted use of "zeugma" as a figure of speech only.

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A syllepsis is a zeugma that's wrong.

For example, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" is a zeugma. Each of the first three words is a vocative for the rest of the sentence.

"You held your breath and the door for me" is a zeugma that is a syllepsis, because "held" is used to mean two, incompatible, things. It's hard to imagine a syllepsis that wouldn't sound jarring and incongruous.

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    That's not how "zeugma" is usually used by linguists, where it usually in fact covers your second example. May 10, 2011 at 18:51
  • Did you mean "vocative" instead of "locative"? (Even though neither case exists in English?)
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 25, 2016 at 19:07
  • @ChristopheStrobbe -- did mean vocative (now corrected, thanks), but while English lacks a distinct vocative case for nouns, we certainly have vocative phrases, buddy. And StackExchange actually has a specific vocative marker, the @ sign! Dec 25, 2016 at 19:59
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About 200,000 words are said to comprise the English language. Many of these have very similar meanings, or convey subtle differences. This makes English a rich resource for precise expression, but it can also create problems, such as the subject of this thread.

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Jane Austen wrote:

Mr and Mrs Moreland were all compliance, and Catherine all happiness.

A lot of commentary on syllepsis implies that Austen’s sentence is ungrammatical. I disagree with this commentary.

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    You should clarify how this answers the question of the difference between zeugma and syllepsis. Dec 3, 2023 at 19:51
  • In order to answer the question of the difference between zeugma and syllepsis, it is reasonable to take account of what authoritative commentators have said about this subject. What was at the back of my mind in my previous comment is (i) that expert commentary here seems unconvincing and (ii) that therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to specify the difference between zeugma and syllepsis.
    – Alex Segal
    Dec 15, 2023 at 22:15
  • In my original comment, I was also implying my reservations about what Wikipedia says about this subject. The Wikipedia account - which had been cited by another commentator - implicitly gives credence to the notion that the Austen sentence I cited is grammatically incorrect.
    – Alex Segal
    Dec 15, 2023 at 22:57
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The Oxford Companion to the English Language offers the following account of Zeugma

16c: through Latin from Greek zeûgma yoking. (1) also syllepsis. In rhetoric, a phrase in which a word, usually a verb, is followed by two or more other words commonly collocate with it, but not together. 'The morning brought misty sunshine and the nurse.' (Mary Stewart, Wildfire at midnight 1956). A figurative use usually precedes a literal use; in Pope's Rape of the Lock (1714), the heroine might 'stain her honour, or her new brocade' and 'lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball'. (2) A form of ellipsis regarded as poor style: I was on the phone and my bags on the ground is ungrammatical in standard English. Zeugma is common in such constructions as X is as big if not bigger than Y, from which X is as big than Y. can be extracted. The balanced form is X is as big as if not bigger than Y.

I have to admit that my edition of OCEL dates back to 1992, a venerable three decades. It does not provide a separate account of syllepsis. Nor does the Cambridge English Dictionary.

Collins dictionary does provide an entry for syllepsis, which offers a distinctive usage in addition to sharing that of its more established cousin.

  1. (in grammar or rhetoric) the use of a single sentence construction in which a verb, adjective, etc is made to cover two syntactical functions, as the verb form have in she and they have promised to come.
  2. another word for zeugma.

If that is a fair account of usage, then the distinctive first definition in Collins is more about grammar than wit or style. Merriam Webster defines syllepsis drawing the same distinctions but the other way around - zeugma first.

If there is a difference between these two terms it is that syllepsis, covers a specifically grammatical non-standard usage, which crops up not infrequently in writing. The other usage, as in:-

He refreshed himself with the morning air and the contents of his brandy flask.

Wikipedia offers a useful discussion of the two words at

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeugma_and_syllepsis

It is well worth a read.

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Breaking the "covered" or "connected" words apart and connecting them with the "unifying" word makes clear the difference. Ex: "Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears." This breaks apart to "Friends, lend me your ears; Romans, lend me your ears; countrymen, lend me your ears." "Lend" fits with each of the linked words correctly and with the same meaning of "lend." Ex: "Piano: played by depressing the keys and the spirits of the listeners." This breaks apart to "Piano, played by depressing the keys; also, depressing the spirits of the listeners." "Depressing" has a sense in each of these phrases, one being physical, the other being psychological. It is this unexpected change of "matrix" that induces humor or dis-settlement in the reader. I leave it to the reader to decide which is which. [Hint: they are in alphabetical order.]

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    You should clarify how this answers the question of the difference between zeugma and syllepsis. May 11, 2020 at 12:27
  • You should also add supporting references. The words are obviously ill-defined; people selecting different specifying definitions will never agree. May 11, 2020 at 14:59
  • I thught the hint would make it clear. My favorite zeugma is a line from the Limelighters song "Have Some Madera, My Dear.." It went: "When he said, 'What in heavens, she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door." Beautiful, no? Jul 30, 2020 at 15:36

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