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:

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).

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. – Daniel Roseman May 3 '11 at 13:48

The OED, in the definition of syllepsis reports that is also another term for zeugma.

The Collin English Dictionary reports that 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 CED 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 '11 at 15:34
  • @Mitch: To articulate something means to express it clearly. – Robusto May 3 '11 at 16:26
  • @Mitch It was a zeugma. – timothymh Mar 29 '12 at 19:52
  • @Mitch: one meaning of "articulate" is "make clear, distinct, and precise in relation to other parts." – Rick Apr 17 '12 at 19:23

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)


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).


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. – Neil Coffey May 10 '11 at 18:51
  • Did you mean "vocative" instead of "locative"? (Even though neither case exists in English?) – Tsundoku Dec 25 '16 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! – Malvolio Dec 25 '16 at 19:59

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. – KillingTime May 11 at 12:27
  • You should also add supporting references. The words are obviously ill-defined; people selecting different specifying definitions will never agree. – Edwin Ashworth May 11 at 14:59

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