There’s something strange about the following sentence:

When Cindy came into the restaurant with her new boyfriend, she spotted her old boyfriend eating a hamburger, fries, and his heart out.

The name for that particular kind of strangeness is zeugma (pronounced ZOOG-muh). Zeugma is a construction in which one word (in this case eating) modifies or governs two or more other words in such a way that it applies in a different sense to different words. “Cindy spotted her old boyfriend eating a burger and fries” makes one kind of sense. “Cindy spotted her old boyfriend eating his heart out” makes a different kind of sense. Put those ideas together in a compound direct object, and you have a zeugma. (You might have a syllepsis, which is a specific kind of zeugma, but we’re getting technical enough already without getting into the distinction between syllepsis and zeugma, which I don’t understand my own self.)

Zeugma, I’m pretty sure, always involves compound grammatical structures. Almost any slot in a sentence can be compounded. To wit:

  • Elephants and rhinos are pachyderms. (compound subject)
  • We sang and danced. (compound verb)
  • Pregnant women supposedly like pickles and ice cream. (compound direct object)
  • The chiahuahua was mean and nasty. (compound predicate complement)
  • Those were the days of wine and roses. (compound object of preposition)

In each of the five examples above, the two halves of the compound are the same kind of thing; they feel equally yoked, to use an agricultural metaphor. Zeugma actually means “yoked” in Greek, but the idea is an unequal yoking of things that don’t belong together in a compound. In this sentence from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen creates a zeugma with a compound subject:

Yet time and her aunt moved slowly—and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tete-a-tete was over.

Here’s a zeugma with a compound direct object:

Growing pensive as she drove down the interstate, Betsy missed her mother and the exit for Daytona.

Because prepositions are so flexible (think how many senses the prepositions in, of, and with have), prepositional phrases are a rich vein for zeugma.

Sidney ate the raw oyster with apprehension and a grapefruit spoon.

Here’s another prepositional-phrase zeugma from Charles Dickens:

Miss Bolo…went straight home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.

As you can see from the above examples, zeugma is typically used for humor that is a tad over-the-top. Jane Austen’s “time and her aunt moved slowly” is a little more subtle, but the other zeugmas (zeugmae?) above read like something you’d see in a Dave Barry column.

Here’s a nice, slightly more subtle zeugma from Mark Twain:

They tugged and tore at each other’s clothes, punched and scratched each other’s noses, and covered themselves in dust and glory.

This example illustrates one of the most common methods of zeugma-making: take a bit of figurative language and combine it with a bit of literal language involving one of the same words. If the combatants cover themselves in glory in a figurative sense, what do they cover themselves with in a literal sense? Dust. Yoke the figurative and literal senses in a grammatical compound and—voila!—you have composed a zeugma.

You can do this all day long.

  • Ross fished for compliments and grouper.
  • You held your breath and the door for me. (Taylor Swift)
  • Ramona wrecked my car and my life.

Grammatically speaking, sometimes zeugmas are marked by faulty parallelism, and sometimes they are grammatically correct. But they are always marked by faulty logical parallelism. That gap between the grammar and the logic is the source of much of the humor in zeugmas.

When you start making up zeugmas, it can be hard to stop. I’d like to hear yours. Also, I couldn’t come up with any zeugmas using compound verbs. If you can come up with one, please send it along.

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