Rhetorical Devices: Syllepsis

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

DeviceSyllepsis

Origin: From the Greek σύλληψις (sillipsis) meaning to take together.

In plain English: When one word–often a verb–is used in two different ways, or applied to two different things.

Effect:

  • It’s a clever play on words that surprises and thus catches our attention.

Notes:

  • In its simplest form, syllepsis is a pun.
  • According to Mark Forsyth in The Elements of Eloquence, the advantages of syllepsis are also its failings. “Syllepsis makes the reader astonished and go back to check what the word was and how it’s working now. It’s terribly witty, but it’s terribly witty in a look-at-me-aren’t-I-witty sort of way. There’s a sense in which it’s a cheap thrill.”
  • It is closely related to zeugma.

Examples:

“Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness.”

—  Sir Robert Hutchinson, Address to the British Medical Association, 1930

———

“It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.”

— Dorothy Parker

———

Make love, not war.”

— Anti-war slogan associated with the American counter-culture in the 1960s

———

“She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

— The Rolling Stones, Honky Tonk Woman

———

“You held your breath and the door for me.”

— Alanis Morissette, Head Over Feet

———

“You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book and a grip on reality.”

— Margaret Atwood, Rules for WritersThe Guardian, 22 February 2010

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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