Consider the following sentence.

John used to work for the newspaper that you are reading.

(It has been collected from here.)

"Newspaper" has several well-known senses.

Newspaper could mean a company:

John used to work for the newspaper.

It could also mean the physical object:

the newspaper that you are reading.

It should be readily apparent that John never worked for that ink-on-died-wood-pulp in front of you. It should also be clear that you are not reading a company. In the first sentence, though, the word seems to take both senses at the same time.

@Nigelj provided another example:

I was going to dust but there wasn't any

Here, dust is first used as a verb and then as a noun—not only having a different word sense but also being a different part of speech.

I am looking for a name for this occurrence to look it up in a reference book or textbook. It is of interest to me because it is a case that is often neglected by computational word-sense-disambiguation systems.

Terms that I have considered but are not (to my knowledge) correct for describing this:

  • polyseme / homonym : a word holding multiple senses at the same time can of-course only occur with words that have multiple senses in the first place. But not all uses of words with multiple senses exhibit the behavior.
  • Syntactic ambiguity/amphiboly/amphibology: this sentence is un-ambigious. It only has one interpretation.
  • Antanaclasis: the word newspaper is only used once, but with two meanings.
  • Pun: pun's generally rely on two different interpretations of the word, separately to give the sentence two possible meanings. Not at the same same time to give the sentence 1 meaning (also they tend to be funny)
  • 1
    (+1) The only comparable sentence I can come up with is 'I was going to dust but there wasn't any'. The hinge word is a kind of 'fused homonym'.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 23, 2017 at 9:50
  • @NigelJ that one is even most unusual, not only does is the word using two word-senses, it is using two different parts of speech! I'll add it to the question since it is really interesting, and so it won't get lost in the comments Oct 23, 2017 at 11:51
  • 1
    You’re looking for polysemy. You might also be interested in structural ambiguity, which is a different concept but related to your “dust” example. In re @NigelJ ‘s “meanings are contradictory”, the key term there is contranym.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 23, 2017 at 11:56
  • 2
    Your newspaper example sentence actually need not be an example. One can refer to reading a newspaper in the sense of the company/publisher/whatever-appropriate-term. (E.g., "I read the New York Times.")
    – jpmc26
    Oct 23, 2017 at 16:51
  • 2
    @jpmc26 I was thinking similarly, but change the verb from "reading" to "holding" and it becomes an example.
    – Barmar
    Oct 23, 2017 at 17:38

3 Answers 3


I think you're referring to the term zeugma.

zeugma noun A figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g. John and his driving licence expired last week). - ODO

The dictionary entry also references the term syllepsis:

syllepsis noun A figure of speech in which a word is applied to two others of which it grammatically suits only one (e.g. neither they nor it is working). - ODO

Both terms are referenced in the following entry:

In rhetoric, zeugma (/ˈzuːɡmə/ ... or /ˈzjuːɡmə/; from the Ancient Greek ζεῦγμα, zeûgma, lit. "a yoking together") and syllepsis (/sɪˈlɛpsɪs/; from the Ancient Greek σύλληψις, sullēpsis, lit. "a taking together") are figures of speech in which one single phrase or word joins different parts of a sentence. - wikipedia

Here are a couple of examples from yourdictionary.com:

  • "The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored." (Wunderland)
  • "She opened her door and her heart to the orphan." (Wunderland)
  • 1
    Yes, it must be that. As such, it is more a figure of speech than a feature of grammar. I would put my money on syllepsis. I think of zeugma as often used for humour: “she went out in her raincoat and gales of laughter.”
    – Tuffy
    Nov 13, 2017 at 23:34

The first example of the OP 'newspaper' is further defined in Wikipedia as a 'semantic syllepsis'. The article also lists four types of Zeugma; then a Diazeugma, a Hypozeugma, a Prozeugma and a Mesozeugma - thrilling stuff.

Zeugma (often also called syllepsis, or semantic syllepsis): a single word is used with two other parts of a sentence but must be understood differently in relation to each.

Example: "He took his hat and his leave."

My second example 'dust' might be cheating, I am not sure; because the second mention of dust is an ellipsis.


In my mind, the example sentence illustrates synecdoche...

synecdoche (n). A figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed., 1992)

...because the physical newspaper is being used to represent the entire organization that produces it.

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