In rhetoric, zeugma (/ˈzjɡmə/ ; 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 a single phrase or word joins different parts of a sentence.[3]


In current usage, there are multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions for zeugma and syllepsis.[4] This article categorizes these two figures of speech into four types, based on four definitions:

Type 1

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.[2][5]

By definition, grammatical syllepsis will often be grammatically "incorrect" according to traditional grammatical 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.

This quote from Alfred Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" is ungrammatical from a grammarian's viewpoint, because "works" does not grammatically agree with "I": the sentence "I works mine" would be ungrammatical. On the other hand, Tennyson's two sentences could be taken to deploy a different figure of speech, namely "ellipsis". The sentence would be taken to mean,

Read in this way, the conjunction is not ungrammatical.

Type 2

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.[6][7][8][9] 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.[16]

The opposite process, in which the first noun expresses a figurative meaning and the second a more literal meaning, tends to create a comic effect: "and she feeds me love and tenderness and macaroons." (The Stampeders, "Sweet City Woman")

Type 3

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.[17]

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: verb, object, subject in the original Latin; subject, verb, object in the English translation. The verb "conquered" is a common element in each clause. The zeugma is created in both the original and the translation 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.

The more usual way of phrasing this would be "Histories make men wise, poets make them witty, mathematics make them subtle, natural philosophy makes them deep, moral [philosophy] makes them grave, and logic and rhetoric make them able to contend." (Because ellipsis involves the omission of words, ambiguities can arise. The sentence could also be read as, "Histories make men wise, make poets witty, make mathematics subtle, make natural philosophy deep, makes moral [philosophy] grave, and make logic and rhetoric able to contend.")

Zeugmas are defined in this sense in Samuel Johnson's 18th-century A Dictionary of the English Language.[19]

Type 4

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 is in an advertisement for a transport company: "We go a long way for you." This type of syllepsis operates in a similar manner to a homonymic pun.

Other types and related figures

There are several other definitions of zeugma that encompass other ways in which one word in a sentence can relate to two or more others. Even a simple construction like "this is easy and comprehensible" has been called[3] a "zeugma without complication" because "is" governs both "easy" and "comprehensible".[20]

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[21] 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.[22]


Hypozeugma[23] or "adjunctions" (adiunctio)[24] 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.


A prozeugma,[26] synezeugmenon, or praeiunctio is a zeugma whose governing word occurs in the first clause of the sentence.[25]


A mesozeugma[27] 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.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Liddell, H. G. & al. A Greek-English Lexicon. "ζεῦγμα". Perseus Project. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  2. ^ a b 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. ^ "What is a Zeugma? || Oregon State Guide to Literary Terms". College of Liberal Arts. 21 May 2020. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  5. ^ a b c "Zeugma". Literary Devices. 16 September 2013. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  6. ^ Random House Dictionary. "Zeugma". 2013. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  7. ^ Oxford Dictionaries Online. "Zeugma". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  8. ^ WordNet. "Zeugma". Princeton University Press. Retrieved 23 January 2013.
  9. ^ Knapp, James F. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. "Glossary of Literary Terms". W. W. Norton & Co., 2005. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  10. ^ a b Baldwick, Chris. 2008. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. "Syllepsis" Oxford University Press. New York. p. 325.
  11. ^ Corbett, Edward P.J. and Conners, Robert J. 1999. Style and Statement. Oxford University Press. New York. Oxford. pp. 63-64.
  12. ^ Burton, Neel (2019). "Chapter 6: Rhetoric". Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking. Acheron. ISBN 9781913260002.
  13. ^ Delany, Samuel R. (August 1998). "Racism and Science Fiction". New York Review of Science Fiction (120). Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  14. ^ Feltgen (11 December 2002). "Histoire de la lutte contre les maladies vénériennes à Rouen" (PDF). Groupe Histoire des Hôpitaux de Rouen. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  15. ^ Frith, John (November 2012). "Syphilis: Its Early History and Treatment Until Penicillin, and the Debate on its Origins" (PDF). Journal of Military and Veterans' Health. 20 (4): 49–56.
  16. ^ a b Shen, Yeshayahu (March 1998). "Zeugma: Prototypes, Categories, And Metaphors". Metaphor and Symbol. 13 (1): 31–47. doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1301_3.
  17. ^ Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. "Zeugma". 2004.
  18. ^ a b Bacon, Francis (1601). "Of Studies".
  19. ^ Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language."Zeugma". 1755. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  20. ^ "Zeugma - Examples and Definition of Zeugma". Literary Devices. 16 September 2013. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  21. ^ "diazeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  22. ^ a b c Rhetorica ad Herennium. IV. xxvii. Retrieved 24 January 2013. via Internet Archive
  23. ^ "hypozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  24. ^ Rhetorica ad Herennium
  25. ^ a b Riccio, Ottone M. (1980). The intimate art of writing poetry. Prentice-Hall. Retrieved 12 May 2013. prozeugma figure of speech.
  26. ^ "prozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  27. ^ "mesozeugma". Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 13 June 2016.