Paraprosdokian (Rhetoric): Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Man throwing pages of a magazine
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. Image Source / Getty Images

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

"Trin Tragula—for that was his name—was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot."
(Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Pan Books, 1980)

"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."
(Woody Allen, "My Speech to the Graduates." Side Effects. Random House, 1975)

"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."
(James Thurber, "Bateman Comes Home." Let Your Mind Alone! 1937)

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

"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised."
(Dorothy Parker, quoted by Mardy Grothe in Ifferisms, 2009)

"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."
(Stewart Lee, "Lost in Translation." The Guardian, May 22, 2006)

"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.'"
(Thomas Conley, "What Jokes Can Tell Us." A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism, ed. by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted. Blackwell, 2004)

Paraprosdokian as a "Concluding Jerk of Disappointment"

"[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
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."
(G.K. Chesterton, "On Bad Poetry." Illustrated London News, July 18, 1931)

"[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."

(Philip Bradbury, Dactionary: The Dictionary with Attitude . . . or a Reactionary Dictionary. CreateSpace, 2010)

Charles Calverley's Use of Paraprosdokian

"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." (G.K. Chesterton, "Books to Read." The Pall Mall Magazine, November 1901)

By the wide lake's margin I mark'd her lie—
The wide, weird lake where the alders sigh—
A young fair thing, with a shy, soft eye;
And I deem'd that her thoughts had flown
To her home, and her brethren, and sisters dear,
As she lay there watching the dark, deep mere,
All motionless, all alone.
Then I heard a noise, as of men and boys,
And a boisterous troop drew nigh.
Whither now will retreat those fairy feet?
Where hide till the storm pass by?
One glance—the wild glance of a hunted thing—
She cast behind her; she gave one spring;
And there follow'd a splash and a broadening ring
On the lake where the alders sigh.
She had gone from the ken of ungentle men!
Yet scarce did I mourn for that;
For I knew she was safe in her own home then,
And, the danger past, would appear again,
For she was a water-rat.
(Charles Stuart Calverley, "Shelter." The Complete Works of C.S. Calverley. George Bell, 1901)

Paraprosdokian in Film

"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." (Stephen Mark Norman, Cinematics. AuthorHouse, 2007)