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Years ago, while taking a college linguistics class, I posed this sentence to my professor:

I pushed the chair with my mother and a broom.

Granted, this sentence is ambiguous, and I won’t delve into all the possibilities here. Instead, my question is focusing on the conjunction and as well as the word with.

My intended meaning of this sentence had been that my mother had been sitting in the chair (not that my mother had helped me push the chair) and that I had used a broom to push the chair containing my mother.

My professor claimed that the sentence is syntactically correct, but he wasn’t sure if semantically, a conjunction could be used like this to combine separate meanings like I’m trying to do here.

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    Yes, its a form of the trope called zeugma -- one word (here with) governing two words (here mother and broom) each requiring a slightly different meaning of the one word. – deadrat Jan 4 '17 at 3:29
  • @deadrat Interesting. I never heard of that word, before. Thanks for the link. I like those examples. I think you should move your comment to being an answer. – DanF Jan 4 '17 at 14:55
  • As in the Flanders and Swann song "Have some Madeira, m'dear"; "He put out the cat, the wine, his cigar and the lights". – Kate Bunting Jan 4 '17 at 17:03
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Yes, doing so is an example of the literary device, trope, or figure of speech called zeugma, which, per Merriam-Webster's gloss, is the "use of a word to modify or govern two or more words when it is appropriate to only one of them or is appropriate to each but in a different way." It is also referred to as syllepsis.

Zeugma neither requires or is prohibited by the use of a conjunction within a sentence. However in typical cases (see literarydevices.com for more examples) the word that is "distributed" is the verb "across" a conjuction, not the conjunction itself. For example, "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit." In your example, by contrast, the natural ambiguity is heightened due to the fact that "with" isn't a conjunction but, rather, is a preposition in the noun-phrase "the chair with my mother." Under a normal reading, then, this would suggest you pushed "the chair with my mother" AND pushed "a broom" but would not necessarily entail that you pushed one with the other.

To get the meaning you intend, the reader has to first pull "with" out of its np, which is a sort of double-move. Personally, I would restrict this to only the most literary/poetic contexts.

  • Credit for this response should really go to @deadrat who correctly recognized the OP's construction as a form of zeugma. – MDHunter Mar 12 '17 at 21:30
  • Any answer posing as a comment is fair game, especially after the post languishes for 2 months without any proper answer. – Cascabel Mar 12 '17 at 21:57

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