Syllepsis gone wild

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From Joel Stickley at how to write badly well:

Joe Stockley was in an expensive sports car and deep trouble. This time, he had really let his mouth and his exotic foreign lover run away with him and it was getting beyond a joke and his immediate circle of friends in the form of rumours and speculation.

As he ran a red light, the conversation back in his mind and away from his troubles, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of rising panic and the soft matte finish of his hand-stitched leather steering wheel. Angelica had been absolutely right and his wife for fifteen years, so why was he running scared, these kind of risks and this deadly gauntlet of illicit entanglements?


  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    This made me laugh out loud, long, and at bad writers.

  2. Karen said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    It would be clearer with serial commas. But how funny!

  3. MB said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    The song "(Have some) Madeira m'dear" by Flanders and Swann has similar runs of zeugma gone wild; e.g.

    He had slyly enveigled her up to his flat
    To view his collection of stamps
    And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
    The wine, his cigar and the lamps:
    "Have some Madeira, m'Dear!

  4. Dierk said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    Groucho Marx used this often.

  5. Sili said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Madeira is old news, i.e. I know the song from here.

    But let's add some YouTubery anyway.

  6. uberVU - social comments said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by interests: Language Log: Syllepsis gone wild

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    Remarkably, I too associate the construction with Mickey-Spillane-esque writing.

    Sadly, when my students do this, the problem is usually more subtle and difficult to explain ("Errrm, well, you see . . .") and the rewards for pointing it out are zilch. If a freshman composition student has ever been cured of unintentional syllepsis, I want to to know about it!

  8. Sid Smith said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    > "It would be clearer with serial commas. But how funny!"

    That's all the excuse I need to post a link to this great little piece about The New Yorker's overuse of commas.

  9. Sandra Wilde said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    Isn't this also a figure of speech called a zeugma?

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    Sandra: syllepsis is a kind of zeugma, as well as of a lark.

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    This is still better writing than Dan Brown's.

  12. Rachael said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Is syllepsis considered bad style? I find it very pleasing and entertaining, when I encounter it in others' writing, and I sometimes deliberately put it in my own (although only in fairly light-hearted writing). I think it's quite clever, and find it hard to believe it would be done unintentionally.

    For example, I wrote in a story "He pulled himself up again with a sheepish grin and the aid of a tree," and felt pleased with myself. Would you consider that bad writing? Would you think it was accidental?

  13. George Amis said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Perhaps someone would be kind enough to explain the difference between syllepsis and zeugma. The OED seems to me to be rather unclear on the matter, and actually uses the same quotation to illustrate both.

  14. Vasha said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    Rachael, no, it isn't bad to use syllepsis for humor, but you can overdo anything. Perhaps the point is just that when you're using particularly flashy linguistic effects you need to deploy them with care! A self-evident observation, but tricky to put into practice.

  15. Bill Walderman said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    @ George Amis:

    This explains it:

  16. Lazar said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    I remember when I read the novel The View From Saturday in grade school, the narrator said (approximately) that a certain character's parents were in "the state of divorce and New York".

  17. Pekka said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    @ George Amis: Silva Rhetoricae on Zeugma, with a link to Syllepsis.

  18. George Amis said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    @Bill Walderman and Pekka

    Thanks very much. I found the Wikipedia article a bit more illuminating, but both were useful. I was struck again, as I hadn't been since graduate school, at the extraordinary mania for minute classification that seems to have seized those who dealt with rhetorical figures. It's hard not to get lost in the tangled thickets of the Silva Rhetoricae.

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    A friend of mine rewrote the story in "Madeira" to another tune, and made sure to include lots of syllepsis in his lyrics: "Just a dissipated creep who wears a Rolex on his wrist,/On her nerves, too much cologne, and down her power to resist." and "Did she turn down the wrong hallway, his advances, or the sheet?"

  20. Jason said,

    December 8, 2009 @ 9:39 am


    If you think about it though, linguists aren't really more prone to classify things than other types of academics, especially when you think about mathematicians, engineers, or biologists. That's not to say they are wrong to be concerned with specificities, of course. But to get to the point, syllepsis is common.

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