Examples of Zeugma

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.

Farmers tending plants as examples of zeugma Farmers tending plants as examples of zeugma

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.

Using Zeugma

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 over Ireland the farmers grew potatoes, barley, and bored.
  • He fished for trout and for compliments.
  • He opened his mind and his wallet every time he went out with her.
  • He firmly held his tongue and her hand.
  • On our first date, I held my breath and the car door for her.
  • When he came to pick me up, I opened my door and my heart to him.
  • The disgruntled worker quickly took his belongings and his leave.
  • She kicked that bad habit and soon after the bucket.
  • The student observed the specimen with a microscope and some disgust.
  • The storm sank my boat and my dreams.
  • In quick succession, Susan lost her job, her house and her mind!
  • She had already exhausted her kids and her patience by the end of the first day of summer vacation.
  • "Yet time and her aunt moved slowly-and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn our before the tete-a-tete was over." - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • "They tugged and tore at each other's hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory." - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

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."

When Zeugma Goes Wrong

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.

Deliberately Confusing

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.

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