Zeugma and Syllepsis
Bill Long 12/07/04
The Single and the Double Supplie
Zeugma and syllepsis are exciting rhetorical devices, allowing us to express ideas concisely and powerfully (zeugma) while, at the same time, permitting and even encouraging us to look for humorous, incongruous or even zany ways in which the same term can be used (syllepsis). A "classic" case of the former is where the verb in the second part of a sentence is dropped but the sense is maintained: "I manned the East Gate, and she, the West." An example of Syllepsis would be: "I am leaving for greener pastures and ten days." Purpose and duration of departure are placed humorously and incongruously together. When a verb is used in two ways with objects, one a literal and one a metaphorical, it can be classed under either zeugma or syllepsis, as in the verse from the prophet Jeremiah: "Rend your hearts and not your garments."
In his widely-used A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Lanham devotes considerable space to trying to differentiate various kinds of zeugmas from each other (prozeugma, mesozeugma and hypozeugma) and from its near neighbor syllepsis. Though zeugma and syllepsis seem to be synonymous in Greek, especially as it concerns rhetorical usage, they differ in Puttenham (1589) and every subsequent English expositor.
Beginning with the Greek
The rhetorical definition of syllepsis, according to Liddell, Scott is: "a figure by which a predicate belonging to one subject is attributed to several" (quoting Herodianus, de Figuris). For zeugma, whose basic meaning is a "yoke," the dictionary has, "a figure of speech, wherein two subjects are used jointly with the same predicate which strictly belongs only to one" (citing Alexander, 2nd cent CE, de Figuris). It sounds like the definitions are identical. Therefore, we ought not to become too upset if we cannot easily and fully differentiate between them today.
George Puttenham, whose 1589 Poesie was, along with Peacham's 1577 Garden of Eloquence, the first major treatment of rhetoric in the English language, devotes three pages to differentiating zeugma and syllepsis (pages 136-138). He calls zeugma, which he introduces first, the single supplie "because by one word we serve many clauses of one congruitie, and may be likened to the man that serves many maisters at once, but all of one country or kinred (p. 136)." In his first example, the "man" is the verb "forsooke":
"Fellowes and friends and kinne forsooke me quite."
Each of the three nouns is one of the "masters" whom "forsooke" serves. There is a "congruitie" because each noun is connected to the verb in a similar fashion. Another example follows quickly:
"Her grandsires Father and Brother was a King/ Her mother a crowned Queene, her Sister and her selfe."
The one word ("was") "serves" them all and they only require "but one congruitie and sence."
Puttenham then differentiates prozeugma (which he calls the "Ringleader"), mesozeugma (the "Middlemarcher") and hypozeugma (the "Rerewarder") by virtue of whether the noun or verb creating the zeugma comes at the beginning, middle or end of the sentence. The crucial point for Puttenham (and subsequent scholars) is that there needs to be a "congruitie" between the one verb or noun and the words that it modifies or "serves."
The Double Supplie
Sometimes, however, the congruity is wanting. "If such want be in sundrie clauses, and of severall congruities or sense, and the supply be made to serve them all, it is by the figure of syllepsis, whom for that respect we call the double supplie conceiving, and as it were, comprehending under one, a supplie of two natures, and may be likened to the man that serves many masters at once, being of strange Countries or kinreds....(Id. at 137)."
At first this can refer to an incongruity between singulars and plurals, such as in the sentence: "His heart and all his ships are (is?) sinking." But, the more significant use of syllepsis is in what Puttenham refers to as the "sence" changed.
"Thus valiantly and with a manly minde,/ And by one feate of everlasting fame,/ This lustie lad fully requited kinde,/ His fathers death, and eke his mothers shame."
He then comments that the verb "requited" in the above quotation is used in two different senses, to revenge and to satisfy. When he says this, he has identified the way that the device is most prominently used today, where a verb is used in two different (and usually humorous) senses.
We really don't need to give many examples of zeugma. Just drop out the verb from the subsequent or earlier clauses, and you have it. "Across the road, the field and the park we ran." But let's close this essay with several examples of syllepsis, with questionable examples noted. For example, is the verb used in two different ways in the following sentence? "There is a certain type of woman who'd rather press grapes than clothes." Well, one is stomping on something and one is using an iron to smooth something, but the word "press" seems to be used rather similarly. However, in the following examples, there is a real incongruity.
"His boat and his dreams sank." One is literal, one metaphorical (I hope you noted the zeugma in this sentence!). Another literal and metaphorical use is: "He lost his coat and his temper." Would the following be an example of syllepsis? "We must all hang together or we must each hang separately." The verb "hang" is used differently, but is repeated, which syllepsis doesn't do. Maybe this is antanaclasis. Another example of zeugma is: "I am leaving for greener pastures and 10 days," where two varied objects create incongruity.
"Fix the problem and not the blame." This is a great example of syllepsis because it is so clear that the word "fix" is used in different senses--solve or affix. Charles Dickens has "She went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair." Mark Twain has a reference to people who "covered themselves with dust and glory." Alanis Morisette sings, "You held your breath and the door for me." The note of incongruity is palpable. This is the essence of syllepsis.
Whereas zeugma enables a concise or even poetic statement of a situation (especially if the verb is at the end), syllepsis emphasizes incongruity between meanings of a verb ("fix") or different fields of meaning of nouns (destination vs. duration). Syllepsis can get a laugh. Occasionally, however, if done well, it can illustrate a profound truth ("rend your hearts and not your garments"). More than that, however, syllepsis can encourage us to think through the full linguistic or meaning field of a verb, thus enriching our understanding of language and making us alert to how we use all our terms.