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This article is about the rhetorical concept. For other uses, see Zeugma (disambiguation).

Zeugma (Listeni/ˈzɡmə/ or /ˈzjuːɡmə/; from the Ancient Greek ζεῦγμα, zeûgma, lit. "a yoking together"[1]) and syllepsis (/sɪˈlɛpsɪs/; from the Ancient Greek σύλληψις, sullēpsis, lit. "a taking together"[2]) are figures of speech in which one single phrase or word joins different parts of a sentence.[3]


There are multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions for zeugma and syllepsis in current use. This article will categorize the figures into four types, based on four definitions.

Type 1[edit]

Grammatical syllepsis (sometimes also called zeugma): where a single word is used in relation to two other parts of a sentence although the word grammatically or logically applies to only one.[4]

By definition, grammatical syllepsis will often be grammatically "incorrect" according to prescriptivist rules. However, such solecisms are sometimes not errors but intentional constructions in which the rules of grammar are bent by necessity or for stylistic effect.

It is ungrammatical from a prescriptive grammarian's viewpoint, because "works" does not grammatically agree with "I": the sentence "I works mine" would be ungrammatical.

Sometimes the "error" is logical, rather than grammatical:

  • "They saw lots of thunder and lightning."

Logically, they "saw" only the lightning.

Type 2[edit]

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.[5][6][7][8] Example: "He took his hat and his leave." The type of figure is grammatically correct but creates its effect by seeming, at first hearing, to be incorrect by its exploiting multiple shades of meaning in a single word or phrase.

When the meaning of a verb varies for the nouns following it, there is a standard order for the nouns: the noun first takes the most prototypical or literal meaning of the verb and is followed by the noun or nouns taking the less prototypical or more figurative verb meanings.[11]

  • "The boy swallowed milk and kisses," as opposed to "The boy swallowed kisses and milk".[11]

Type 3[edit]

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms offers a much broader definition for zeugma by defining it as any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence.[12]

  • Vicit pudorem libido timorem audacia rationem amentia. (Cicero, Pro Cluentio, VI.15)
    "Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason."

The more usual way of phrasing this would be "Lust conquered shame, audacity conquered fear, and madness conquered reason." The sentence consists of three parallel clauses, called parallel because each has the same word order: subject, verb, object. The verb "conquered" is a common element in each clause. The zeugma is created by removing the second and third instances of "conquered." Removing words that still can be understood by the context of the remaining words is ellipsis.

  • Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend. (Francis Bacon[13]).

The more usual way of phrasing this would be "Histories make men wise, poets make them witty, the mathematics make them subtle, natural philosophy makes them deep, moral [philosophy] makes them grave, and logic and rhetoric make them able to contend."

Zeugmas are defined in this sense in Samuel Johnson's 18th-century A Dictionary of the English Language.[14]

Type 4[edit]

A special case of semantic syllepsis occurs when a word or phrase is used both in its figurative and literal sense at the same time.[3] Then, it is not necessary for the governing phrase to relate to two other parts of the sentence. One example, from the song "What's My Name?", is: "Okay, there we go / Only thing we have on is the radio." Another example is in an advertisement for a transport company: "We go a long way for you." This type of syllepsis is similar to a homonymic pun.

Other types, and related figures[edit]

There are several other definitions of zeugma, encompassing other ways in which one word in a sentence can relate to two or more others. Even a simple construction such as "this is easy and comprehensible" has been called[3] a "zeugma without complication" because "is" governs both "easy" and "comprehensible."

Specialized figures have been defined to distinguish zeugmas with particular characteristics such as the following figures, which relate to the specific type and location of the governing word:


A diazeugma[15] is a zeugma whose only subject governs multiple verbs. A diazeugma whose only subject begins the sentence and controls a series of verbs is a "disjunction" (disiunctio) in the Rhetorica ad Herennium.[16]


Hypozeugma[17] or "adjunctions" (adiunctio)[18] is used in a construction containing several phrases and occurs when the word or words on which all of the phrases depend are placed at the end.

  • Assure yourself that Damon to his Pythias, Pylades to his Orestes, Titus to his Gysippus, Theseus to his Pyrothus, Scipio to his Laelius, was never found more faithful than Euphues will be to his Philautus. (John Lyly, Euphues)[19]


A prozeugma,[20] synezeugmenon, or praeiunctio is a zeugma whose governing word occurs in the first clause of the sentence.[19]

  • Vicit pudorem libido timorem audacia rationem amentia. (Cicero, Pro Cluentio, VI.15)
    "Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason."
  • Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend. (Francis Bacon[13]).


A mesozeugma[21] is a zeugma whose governing word occurs in the middle of the sentence and governs clauses on either side. A mesozeugma whose common term is a verb is called "conjunction" (coniunctio) in the Roman Rhetorica ad Herennium.[16]

  • "What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproch could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country. [sic]" (Henry Peacham)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Liddell, H. G. & al. A Greek-English Lexicon. "ζεῦγμα". Perseus Project. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  2. ^ Random House Dictionary. "Syllepsis". 2013. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  3. ^ a b c Bernard Marie Dupriez (1991). A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z. University of Toronto Press. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-8020-6803-3. Retrieved 25 September 2013. 
  4. ^ Random House Dictionary. "Syllepsis". 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  5. ^ Random House Dictionary. "Zeugma". 2013. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionaries Online. "Zeugma". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  7. ^ WordNet. "Zeugma". Princeton University Press. Retrieved 23 January 2013.
  8. ^ Knapp, James F. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. "Glossary of Literary Terms". W. W. Norton & Co., 2005. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  9. ^ ** Strauss, Emanuel (1994). Dictionary of European proverbs (Volume 2 ed.). Routledge. p. 661. ISBN 0-415-09624-3. 
  10. ^ Reported in Strauss, Emmanuel, Dictionary of European Proverbs (Routledge, 1998), ISBN 0-415-16050-2, p. 765.
  11. ^ a b Shen, Yeshayahu (March 1998). "Zeugma: Prototypes, Categories, And Metaphors". Metaphor & Symbol. 13 (1): 31–47. doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1301_3. 
  12. ^ Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. "Zeugma". 2004.
  13. ^ a b Bacon, Francis (1601). "Of Studies". 
  14. ^ Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language."Zeugma". 1755. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  15. ^ "diazeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 2016-06-13. 
  16. ^ a b c Rhetorica ad Herennium. IV. xxvii. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  17. ^ "hypozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 2016-06-13. 
  18. ^ Rhetorica ad Herennium
  19. ^ a b Riccio, Ottone M. The intimate art of writing poetry. Prentice-Hall. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  20. ^ "prozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 2016-06-13. 
  21. ^ "mesozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 2016-06-13. 

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