‘Uncle Al is old, has brown eyes and dementia’: The importance of order in zeugmas

Roi Tartakovsky*, Yeshayahu Shen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Zeugma (‘yoking’) is a figure of speech which, unlike metaphor, typically involves a verb followed by two discrepant objects or items in a coordinating conjunction (‘You held your breath and the door for me’). A reversal of the given order of the two items will often have a considerable effect on the tone and emotional quality of the zeugma. Still, accounts of zeugma all but ignore the question of order. This essay asks about the connection between the order of the zeugma’s items and its effect. It differentiates between the positions or slots for the items within the zeugma, and the actual items which occupy these slots. It posits an asymmetry between the first and second slots such that the second is the site of more attention and is presumed to carry more important or surprising information. Structurally, then, the zeugma entails a weak-to-strong trajectory. Separately, it also posits an asymmetry between the two items themselves, which tend to divide into a weaker (neutral) one and one that is emotionally richer or ‘strong.’ The effect of the zeugma is then linked to the relationship between the strength of the slot and the strength of the item. In the typical case, a strong item is placed in the strong slot, which produces an effect of emotional elevation. In other cases, a weak item is placed in the strong slot, which tends to produce irony. We analyze several zeugmas according to these principles, with an emphasis on examples drawn from English-language poetry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)424-436
Number of pages13
JournalLanguage and Literature
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2023


  • Asymmetry
  • bathos
  • closure
  • figurative language
  • humor
  • iambicity
  • irony
  • linear ordering
  • prominence
  • zeugma


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