Zeugma (Rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Groucho Marx
"Time flies like an arrow," said Groucho Marx. "Fruit flies like a banana." Here Marx uses flies in two different senses and as different parts of speech (first as a verb, then as a noun).



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A distant cousin of a transferred epithet, zeugma is a rhetorical term for the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words although its use may be grammatically or logically correct with only one. Adjective: zeugmatic.

Rhetorician Edward P.J. Corbett offers this distinction between zeugma and syllepsis: in zeugma, unlike syllepsis, the single word does not fit grammatically or idiomatically with one member of the pair. Thus, in Corbett's view, the first example below would be syllepsis, the second zeugma:

  • "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit."
    (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
  • "Kill the boys and the luggage!"​
    (Fluellen in William Shakespeare's Henry V)

However, as Bernard Dupriez points out in A Dictionary of Literary Devices (1991), "There is little agreement among rhetoricians on the difference between syllepsis and zeugma," and Brian Vickers notes that even the Oxford English Dictionary "confuses syllepsis and zeugma" (Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry, 1989). In contemporary rhetoric, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably to refer to a figure of speech in which the same word is applied to two others in different senses.


From the Greek, "a yoking, a bond"

Examples and Observations

  • "Zeugma is when a word applies to two others in different ways; or to two words when it only semantically suits one. An example of the former quotes Alanis Morissette: 'You held your breath and the door for me.' How chivalrous and zeugmatic. An example of the latter is 'with wailing mouths and hearts'—but don't blame Morissette for this doggerel."
    (Gary Nunn, "Move Over, George Orwell—This Is How to Sound Really Clever." The Guardian, October 11, 2013)
  • "He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men."
    (Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried. McClelland & Stewart, 1990)
  • "She arrived in a taxi and a flaming rage."
    (John Lyons, Semantics. Cambridge University Press, 1977)
  • "We were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life."
    (Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses. Ivy Books, 1995)
  • "[H]e was alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey when, passing the workhouse, his eyes encountered the bill on the gate."
    (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1839)
  • "I just blew my nose, a fuse, and three circuit breakers."
    (The Jim Henson Hour, 1989)
  • "I was in no sort of nick for this encounter, I admit, full of fear and afternoon scotch and the homeward tug."
    (Marin Amis, Money. Jonathan Cape, 1984)
  • "Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,Or some frail China-jar receive a flaw,Or stain her honour, or her new brocade."
    (Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, 1717)
  • "She lowered her standards by raising her glass,Her courage, her eyes and his hopes."
    (Flanders and Swann, "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear")
  • "The theme of the Egg Hunt is 'learning is delightful and delicious'—as, by the way, am I."
    (Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg in The West Wing)

Zeugma as a Writing Fault

  • "Like syllepsis, the figure known as zeugma uses a single word to link two thoughts, but in syllepsis the relationship of the linking word to both ideas is correct, whereas in zeugma the relationship is correct for one idea but not for the other. A fabricated example of zeugma might be, 'He sat munching his sandwich and his beer.' An actual example from fiction is, 'Something odd in the behavior of the pair held his attention and his curiosity.' The term zeugma is often used to refer to syllepsis, but as here distinguished it obviously is a writing fault, which syllepsis is not." (Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Simon & Schuster, 1965)
  • "Zeugma is often accidental, as in She wore a rusty black dress, a feather boa, and an alligator handbag; since wore has no legitimate application to handbag, this zeugma is an error." (Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English. Washington Square, 1991)
  • Confusing and Contradictory Distinctions Between Zeugma and Syllepsis
    "Although commentators have historically tried to distinguish between zeugma and syllepsis, the distinctions have been confusing and contradictory: 'even today agreement on definitions in the rhetorical handbooks is virtually nil' (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993). We're better off using zeugma in its broadest sense and not confusing matters by introducing syllepsis, a little-known term the meaning of which even the experts can't agree on." (Bryan A. Garner, The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2016)

Pronunciation: ZOOG-muh

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Nordquist, Richard. "Zeugma (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/zeugma-rhetoric-1692624. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Zeugma (Rhetoric). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zeugma-rhetoric-1692624 Nordquist, Richard. "Zeugma (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zeugma-rhetoric-1692624 (accessed February 1, 2023).