Tmesis: Grammatical and Rhetorical Term

Tmesis is the separation of the parts of a compound word by another word or words, usually for emphasis or comic effect. The adjective form is tmetic. Related to tmesis is synchesis, the jumbling of word order in an expression.

Etymology: From the Greek, "a cutting

Pronunciation: (te-)ME-sis

Also Known As: infix, tumbarumba (Australia)

Examples and Observations

  • "'Abso-friggin-lutely!' I said triumphantly as I mentally crossed my fingers." (Victoria Laurie, A Vision of Murder. Signet, 2005)
  • "Goodbye, Piccadilly. Farewell, Leicester bloody Square." (James Marsters as Spike in "Becoming: Part 2." Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1998)
  • "Whoopdee-damn-doo, Bruce thought. At most newspapers, general assignment reporters were newsroom royalty, given the most important stories. At the East Lauderdale Tattler, they were a notch above janitors, and burdened with lowly tasks . . .." (Ken Kaye, Final Revenge. AuthorHouse, 2008)
  • "To persuade people to keep watching [the television program Zoo Quest], [David] Attenborough gave the series an objective, a rare animal to pursue: picarthates gymnocephalus, the bald-headed rock crow. He doubted this creature would be alluring enough, but when his cameraman Charles Lagus was driving him down Regent Street in an open-top sports car and a bus driver leaned out of his cab and asked, in a neat piece of tmesis, if he was ever going to catch 'that Picafartees gymno-bloody-cephalus,' he knew it had lodged itself in the public mind." (Joe Moran, Armchair Nation. Profile, 2013)
  • "This is not Romeo, he's some other where." (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)
  • "In what torn ship soever I embark,
    That ship shall be my emblem
    What sea soever swallow me, that flood
    Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood." (John Donne, "Hymn to Christ, at the Author's Last Going Into Germany")
  • "Most often, tmesis is applied to compounds of 'ever.' 'Which way so ever man refer to it' (Milton); 'that man--how dearly ever parted' (Troilus and Cressida 3.3.96); 'how heinous e'er it be,/To win thy after-love I pardon thee' (Richard II 5.3.34). However, the syllable of any word can be separated: 'Oh so lovely sitting abso-blooming-lutely still' (A. Lerner and F. Lowe, My Fair Lady). Or 'See his wind--lilycocks--laced' (G.M. Hopkins, 'Harry Ploughman'). Tmesis is also commonly used in terms of British slang, such as 'hoo-bloody-ray.'" (A. Quinn, "Tmesis." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by T. Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)
  • "It's a sort of long cocktail--he got the formula off a barman in Marrakesh or some-bloody-where." (Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You, 1960)
  • "I did summon up the courage to poke a camera through Terry Adams's front gate last year, only to be met with a minder's greeting: 'Why don't you leave us a-f---ing-lone.' I wonder if the brute was aware of his use of tmesis, the insertion of one word into another?" (Martin Brunt, "How Terror Has Changed the Crime Beat." The Guardian, Nov. 26, 2007)
  • "old age sticks
    up Keep
    signs) &
    youth yanks them
    cries No
    Tres) & (pas)
    youth laughs
    old age
    scolds Forbid
    den Stop
    n't Don't
    &) youth goes
    right on
    owing old"
    (E.E. Cummings, "old age sticks")
  • "Gideon [Kent] knew [Joseph] Pulitzer, of course. He admired the publisher's insistence that his paper never become the captive of any group or political party. 'Indegoddamnpendent' was Pulitzer's unique way of putting it." (John Jakes, The Americans. Nelson Doubleday, 1980)

Tmetic Rhythms

"When you insert a word for emphasis—be it fricking, bleeping, something ruder, or something less rude—you can't just stick it any old where. We know this because abso-freaking-lutely is fine but ab-freaking-solutely or absolute-freaking-ly is not. Whether it's in a word, a phrase, or a name—you stick the emphatic addition right before a stressed syllable, usually the syllable with the strongest stress, and most often the last stressed syllable. What we're doing, in prosodic terms, is inserting a foot. . . .

"When it comes to sticking these extra feet in, we normally break the word or phrase according to the rhythm of what we're inserting. 'To be or not to be, that is the question' is thought of as iambic pentameter, but you won't break it between iambs if your interrupting foot is a trochee: 'To be or not to bleeping be,' not 'To be or not bleeping to be' . . . But if it's an iamb? 'To be or not the heck to be,' not 'To be or not to the heck be.'

"Look, these are rude, interrupting words. They're breaking in and wrecking the structure. That's the freaking point. But they still do it with a rhythmic feeling." (James Harbeck, "Why Linguists Freak Out About 'Absofreakinglutely.'" The Week, December 11, 2014)

The Split Infinitive as Tmesis

"A split infinitive has been elsewhere defined as a type of syntactic tmesis in which a word, especially an adverb, occurs between to and the infinitival form of a verb. Different labels have been used to name this particular ordering of English, spiked adverb or cleft infinitive among others, but the term split infinitive has eventually superseded all its predecessors (Smith 1959: 270)." (Javier Calle-Martin and Antonio Miranda-Garcia, "On the Use of Split Infinitives in English." Corpus Linguistics: Refinements and Reassessments, ed. by Antoinette Renouf and Andrew Kehoe. Rodopi, 2009)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Tmesis: Grammatical and Rhetorical Term." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Tmesis: Grammatical and Rhetorical Term. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Tmesis: Grammatical and Rhetorical Term." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).