Adjectives: zeugma – a secret writing technique

Zeugma, as well as being a useful Scrabble® word, is simply the name used when one word serves two different purposes in the one sentence. Usually, one of the senses is literal and the other metaphorical. For example:
  • The room and her mood grew dark.
  • The mountains and my spirits were high.
  In these examples, the adjectives dark and high literally describe the room and the mountains. They are used metaphorically to describe her mood and my spirits. Zeugma can be an effective and efficient way to link very different concepts.  If these sentences had been written without zeugma, their impact is not as great. For example:
  • The room grew dark and she became unhappy.
  • The mountains were high and I was high-spirited.
Both adjectives and verbs can be used for zeugma.  Some of the better-known examples from literature use verbs:
  • They . . . covered themselves with dust and glory. (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
  • He was alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey when, passing the workhouse, his eyes encountered the bill on the gate. (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist)
Zeugma is sometimes also called syllepsis (another good Scrabble® word). While you probably won’t need to use zeugma every day, it was worth remembering that it can be an effective way to create a memorable sentence. If you have found this post interesting, you can find a full index to my other posts on the index page. To be notified when I post a new topic, follow me on Facebook! If you have any particular questions you’d like me to answer in future posts, just  send me a message I’m always interested to learn what people think, and how you came across this site, so please post a comment. If you think you would be interested in either my complete grammar course or an individual customised online course (particularly suited for people who don’t live in Melbourne), just click your preferred option.  
Photos: dark room by Viktor Mogilat,  mountains by Antonio Grosz, both on Unsplash.

2 comments on “Adjectives: zeugma – a secret writing technique”

  1. Lew Istre Reply

    As writer and editor, I love this. Thanks. One of mine, at least, I think so: “She minced her garlic but not her words.”

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