Rhetorical Devices: Paraprosdokian

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.

Device: Paraprosdokian

Origin: From the Greek παρά (para), meaning “beyond” and προσδοκία (prosthokhia), meaning “expectation”; thus, “beyond expectation”.

In plain English: A sentence or phrase that has an unexpected ending.

Effect:

  • The unexpected ending is most often used for a humorous effect.
  • The unexpected ending causes the audience to rethink the initial part of the sentence or phrase.

Notes:

  • Bill Casselman, a Canadian writer, broadcaster and etymologist, argues that the word “paraprosdokian” does not appear anywhere in Greek, Latin or early English literature.
  • Casselman says that the word “was made up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th century, then added to lists of rhetorical terms at universities whose departments of classics must have been staffed by brain-dead sluggards and mummified pedagogues”.
  • Casselman’s critique of the word is scathing, well written and incredibly funny.
  • Until someone comes up with a better word, I’ll stick with “paraprosdokian”.

Examples:

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.”

— Winston Churchill

———

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

— Groucho Marx

———

“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

— Dorothy Parker

———

“I haven’t slept for ten days because that would be too long.”

 Mitch Hedberg

———

“Take my wife—please!

— Henny Youngman

———

“Light travels faster than sound, which is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”

— Anonymous

———

“A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.”

— Anonymous

———

“Behind every successful man is a woman; behind the fall of every successful man is usually another woman.”

— Anonymous

———

“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

— Anonymous

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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4 Responses to Rhetorical Devices: Paraprosdokian

  1. Steph says:

    What is the name of the rhetorical device in which you convey an enormous space or distance for hyperbolic effect by saying, for example, “From Maine to Texas”? Thank you.

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Steph. Thanks for the question. I have to admit that the only thing that comes to mind is hyperbole. However, I can think of examples where your phrase “From Maine to Texas” might not be a hyperbole; for example: “The storm wreaked havoc from Maine to Texas” or “The President is riding high in the polls from Maine to Texas”. On the other hand, it could be hyperbole: “When he yells, he can be heard from Maine to Texas”. I’ll give it some thought and if anything occurs to me, I’ll let you know.

      Thanks again.

      John

      Like

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