The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Zeugma: Broadly defined, a rhetorical figure, from the Greek for “yoking,” in which one word or phrase governs or modifies two or more words or phrases. Zeugma usually involves a single verb that governs multiple nouns or prepositional phrases, as in the Biblical verse beginning “And rend your heart, and not your garments” (Joel 2:13), but may involve other constructions, such as the use of one noun to govern various verbs or the use of one adjective to modify various nouns. The device may suggest parallels between things commonly differentiated or differences between things commonly equated; alternatively, it is often used for the comic effect created by deploying the same word in very different contexts, as in the movie So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), where protagonist Charlie MacKenzie declares, “She was a thief, you gotta believe, she stole my heart and my cat.”

Definitions of zeugma and its relationship to syllepsis have varied from ancient Greek times to the present day. Some scholars have used the terms synonymously, a common practice today. Others have defined syllepsis as a type of zeugma in which the yoked words or phrases manifest a grammatical or semantic disparity. For example, in the sentence “The car was stolen, the bicycles left untouched,” the verb “was” is grammatically correct with respect to the car but incorrect with respect to the bicycles. By contrast, in the line from Alanis Morissette’s song “Head over Feet” (1995) referring to a man who held his breath and the door for her, the verb pairings are grammatically correct but discordant in meaning, with held applying to each noun object in a very different way. Still other scholars distinguish the terms entirely. For instance, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), a treatise often attributed to George Puttenham, the author differentiates zeugma from syllepsis on the basis of congruity, associating zeugma with a yoking word that applies in a similar sense to others and syllepsis with a yoking word that applies in a different sense to others.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The line from Cicero’s “Pro Cluentio” speech (66 B.C.) “Lust conquered shame, boldness fear, madness reason” exemplifies zeugma broadly defined, with the single word “conquered” governing “shame,” “fear,” and “reason.” The lines from Alexander Pope’s poem “The Rape of the Lock” (1712, 1714) in which the narrator muses that the heroine will “stain her Honour, or her new Brocade, / … Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball” use syllepsis to illustrate how “society types” often equate the significant and insignificant, valuing material goods as highly as moral or spiritual ones.

More recent examples of zeugma appear in Gore Vidal’s historical novel 1876 (1976), in which the protagonist reports that his daughter has given a newspaperman “her Medusa gaze, causing him to turn if not to stone to me,” and Amy Tan’s novel The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), in which the protagonist, who is sitting in a half-empty restaurant with her husband, muses “We were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.”