Paraprosdokian and Rhetoric

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Paraprosdokian is a rhetorical term for an unexpected shift in meaning at the end of a sentence, stanza, series, or short passage. Paraprosdokian (also called the surprise ending) is often used for comic effect.

In his book "Tyrannosaurus Lex" (2012), Rod L. Evans characterizes paraprosdokians as "sentences with ambushes, . . . as in comedian Stephen Colbert's line, 'If I am reading this graph correctly—I'd be very surprised.'"

  • Etymology: From the Greek, "beyond" + "expectation"
  • Pronunciation: pa-ra-prose-DOKEee-en

Examples and Observations

Douglas Adams: Trin Tragula—for that was his name—was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

Woody Allen: Contemporary man, of course, has no such peace of mind. He finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith. He is what we fashionably call 'alienated.' He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars.

James Thurber: Old Nate Birge sat on the rusted wreck of an ancient sewing machine, in front of Hell Fire, which was what his shack was known as among the neighbors and to the police. He was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.

H.L. Mencken: For every complex problem, there is an answer that is short, simple—and wrong.

Dorothy Parker: If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Stewart Lee: At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, 'I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox . . . and then I got off the bus.' We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word 'bus' was withheld from us.

Thomas Conley: Some [antitheses] may overlap with another tropic turn of phrase, paraprosdokian, a violation of expectations. 'On his feet he wore... blisters' is Aristotle's example. Consider also the more patently 'argumentative' 'Capitalism means the oppression of one group of men by another; with communism, it's the other way around.'

G.K. Chesterton: [Rev. Patrick Brontë] has often been called harsh and inhuman; but he deserves a place in literature since he invented a metre that is an instrument of torture. It consists of a rhyming verse finally ending on a word which ought to rhyme and does not... It is long since I have sat at the feet of this minstrel; and I quote from memory; but I think another verse of the same poem thus illustrated the same paraprosdokian, or concluding jerk of disappointment--

Religion makes beauty enchanting;
And even where beauty is wanting,
The temper and mind
Religion-refined
Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre.

If you read much of it, you will reach a state of mind in which, even though you know the jolt is coming, you can hardly forbear to scream.

Philip Bradbury: [Paraprosdokian] is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax...

- I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness...
- I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

G.K. Chesterton: The real value of [Charles] Calverley's work is too often missed. Too much stress is laid upon those merely tricky poems the comic character of which depends upon bathos or paraprosdokian. To describe a female as plunging desperately into the water, and to explain in the last line that she was a water-rat, is perfectly genuine fun, but it has not much more to do with humorous literature than any other practical joke, such as a booby trap or an apple pie bed.

Stephen Mark Norman: There are two miscellaneous tropes called paraprosdokian, which is a sudden or abrupt ending, and climax, the trope Sergei Eisenstein engineered for the end of The Battleship Potemkin (1925). These are miscellaneous due to being created by editing alone and do not rely so much on the visual information in the shot.