A zeugma is an interesting device that can cause confusion in sentences, while also adding some flavor. Let's take a famous example from Star Trek: The Next Generation: "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit." In this sentence, the word "execute" applies to both laws and citizens, and as a result, has a shocking effect.
Therefore, a zeugma is a figure of speech where a word applies to multiple parts of the sentence. In the above example, it has a dramatic effect. However, sometimes the attempted use of a zeugma can be confusing.
Uses of Zeugma
The zeugma is sometimes utilized to create drama, add emotion or produce some sort of shock value. While there can still be an underlying sense of confusion, generally an zeugma is used purposely as shown in these examples:
- "The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored." (Wunderland)
- "She opened her door and her heart to the orphan." (Wunderland)
- "He opened his mind and his wallet at the movies."
- "She batted her eyelashes and third." (Words & Stuff)
- "He fished for compliments and for trout." (Words & Stuff)
- She dug for gold and for praise.
- The disgruntled employee took his coat and his vacation.
- "He lost his coat and his temper." (Zeugma)
- "You held your breath and the door for me." (Zeugma)
- He held his temper and her hand.
- She made her breakfast and the bed.
- "The addict kicked the habit and then the bucket." (Zeugma)
- "She exhausted both her audience and her repertoire." (I Love India)
- "To wage war and peace." (I Love India)
- "She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass." (Charles Dickens, I Love India)
- She looked at her the scene with her eyes and fear.
- "It was curtains for him and the window." (I Love India)
- "He held a high rank and an old notepad." (I Love India)
- "His boat and his dreams sank." (I Love India)
- His heart and his love fled away.
- "I am leaving for greener pastures and 10 days." (I Love India)
- "First the door locked, then his jaw." (Mesozeugma)
- "Mr. Pickwick took his hat and his leave." (Zeugma)
- "He milked the situation and the cow." (Words & Stuff)
- "She stayed his execution and at the hotel." (Words & Stuff)
All of these examples serve a particular purpose. For example, with the "His boat and his dreams sank" example, the zeugma creates a more powerful sentence. The emotions of a person losing a lifelong dream as a sailor are more pronounced in this sentence than in a construction such as this: The man's boat sank. He realized his dreams were slipping away.
Problems with Zeugma
Sometimes, when people try to use a zeugma in their writing, they will find themselves bordering on dangling modifier issues. It's important to use zeugma in the clearest ways possible and to always have a purpose for doing so.
When Zeugma Goes Wrong
"Sitting by the fence, the dog barked at the cat" is an example of when zeugma goes wrong. If you wrote that sentence, you may think that you are making it clear that both the dog and the cat are sitting by the fence. However, you have actually created a dangling modifier. Due to the placement of the word "sitting," it is unclear as to whether the dog, the cat or both of the animals are sitting near the fence.
Another example of such a construction is as follows: "Walking by the tree, the child waved to her friend." Again, who is walking by the tree? One child or both of the children? These two attempts at zeugma can be easily corrected, although they will not necessarily produce zeugmas. "While the dog and the cat were sitting by the fence, they barked at each other" and "When the two girls walked by the tree, they waved to each other" are both suitable alternatives.