The zeugma is an interesting literary device that uses one word to refer to two or more different things, in more than one way. Zeugmas will either confuse the reader or inspire them to think more deeply.
Here’s a famous example from Star Trek: The Next Generation: "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit." In this sentence, the word "execute" applies to both laws and citizens and, as a result, has a shocking effect.
Given the zeugma’s risky role in a sentence, it’s best to tread lightly when adding this kind of flavor to your writing. Let’s examine some examples of zeugma so you can continue to add zest to your prose.
Zeugma can be used to create drama, add emotion, or produce a level of shock value. While there can still be an underlying sense of confusion, generally, a zeugma is used purposely.
Here are some examples:
All of these examples serve a particular purpose. Let’s look at “The storm sank my boat and my dreams.” This zeugma translates a more powerful meaning. Now, the feelings of sadness over the loss of a treasured boat and lifelong dream is more pronounced than something literal like, “My boat sank in the storm. I couldn’t realize my dreams.”
Sometimes, when people try to use a zeugma in their writing, they find themselves entering misplaced modifier territory. That is, it’s apparent something is being modified, but it’s unclear what that is. Therefore, although you may want to confuse with your zeugma it's important to still follow the rules of sentence structure.
For example, “She dug for gold and for praise in the ground." The modifier “in the ground” goes with gold, as you do not find praise in the ground.
This attempt at zeugma can be easily corrected and clarified: “She dug for gold in the ground and for praise.” It’s not quite the same zinger but isn’t this the beauty of writing? sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. There’s a fine line between clear-cut prose and fanciful flourishes.
Zeugmas not only add drama to a sentence, sometimes, they’re intentionally confusing, especially when used humorously. For example, In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens writes, “He was alternately cudgeling his brains and his donkey.” This zeugma isn’t meant to be taken seriously, as the man was (hopefully) not beating his donkey and his brains out at the same time.
Or take this line: “When you come over, bring salad and your husband to eat.” Will the husband be eating or eaten at this meal? It’s hard to tell, and that’s where the humorous effect of the zeugma comes into play.
As long as the reader can deduce your meaning, you could be well on your way to producing a clever one-liner. If you find zeugma entertaining, have some fun with other examples of rhetorical devices, including the fan-favorites alliteration and evocative epithet.