Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Watch out for those zeugmas

When used intentionally a zeugma may be witty and clever. When used unintentionally the reader may also fall out of her chair laughing. But at the author, not at the story.

A zeugma joins two parts of a sentence together with a single verb or noun that may only refer to one of them (that’s an oops!) or may refer to both of them in a different way. (That’s when it may be very clever, or then again it may still be an oops).

A famous example of a zeugma 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.

“On his fishing trip, he caught three trout and a cold.” (

“She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.” (Charles Dickens)

When Zeugma Goes Wrong

“Sitting by the fence, the dog barked at the cat” is an example of when zeugma goes wrong. If you wrote that sentence, you may think that you are making it clear that both the dog and the cat are sitting by the fence. However, you have actually created a dangling modifier. Due to the placement of the word “sitting,” it is unclear as to whether the dog, the cat or both of the animals are sitting near the fence.

Another example of such a construction is as follows: “Walking by the tree, the child waved to her friend.” Again, who is walking by the tree? One child or both of the children?

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.


anny cook said...

Good to know our screw-ups have names...

Helen Woodall: Freelance Editing said...

Yeah. I find quite fascinating