Syllepsis of the month

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Conor Friedersdorf, "How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File", The Atlantic 11/7/2012:

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

For background, see "Syllepsis, aka WTF coordination", 4/14/2007.


  1. Matthew Wright said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    My favourite ever syllepsis comes from sex advice columnist Dan Savage replying to someone who'd been wrong-footed by a girlfriend's bad behaviour and asked if he had to take a class to understand women better. Dan's response: "You don't need to take a class, she needs to get some."

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    See Neal Whitman's treatment on his Literal-Minded blog here.

  3. Kenny said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    Is there any work looking at varying degrees of grammaticality of syllepsis? It seems to me there may be some rules that govern the phenomenon beyond semantic games.

    In the background post it seems that some of the examples are much more acceptable than others. Take for instance the examples from

    (1)"as he hastened to put out the cat,/The wine, his cigar and the lamps"
    (2)"She lowered her standards by raising her glass,/Her courage, her eyes and his hopes."
    (3)"she made no reply,/Up her mind, and a dash for the door"

    1 is classic zeugma (at least the way I learned it) since it is grammatically parallel but trades on different senses of the phrase "put out" or just of the word "out" depending on how you want to look at it. Nevertheless, despite the syntactic parallelness, it is "ungrammatical" (or "less grammatical") because the underlying structure involves switching between 3 totally different words with the same syntactic distribution.

    2 I would call "grammatical" because it seems to be both syntactically parallel and semantically parallel. The semantic/interpretive game is simply that some of the raising is metaphorical, but the metaphor relies on the exact same definition of raise, so it's just the same word for each object, alternating between physical space and metaphorical space. It's clearly more interesting than normal sentences, but it doesn't really involve a different grammar or interpretive mode the way 1 does.

    3 to me is totally ungrammatical but rhetorically well set up and effective because of the previous and copious use of syllepsis. It seems to me that it would be incomprehensible to a listener (I've never heard the song so feel free to correct me), but it is very interpretable in text form. It seems to violate syntactic principles of parallelism and semantic principles. There also seems to be no framework of ellipses that could give an expanded original sentence for 3 to be a contracted form of.

  4. Kenny said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    Then there's this other example from earlier in the song ((4) "…he was vile and no stranger to vice"). That is either totally grammatical or so common a form of syllepsis that it seems normal.

    Finally, consider one of the more if not the most jarring example from the background post: (5) "don't expect it to work or support from Apple". It seems like this is bad because there's syntactic ambiguity between "don't expect … support" and "to … support", but I also think there's some other syntax problem. Rewording it to "don't expect support from Apple or it to work" still gives me the heebie jeebies. Eliminating the "to work" part altogether still seems to leave a problem, but maybe there's a context that could make it work ("don't expect it or support"; "don't expect support or it"). But rewording like this make it grammatical to me (in the same sense/degree as 2 and 4): "don't expect support from Apple or for it to work". What's going on here? Is it just me?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

    Politics makes strange yokefellows.

    The locus classicus for syllepsis with "get" must be

    You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
    Another day older, and deeper in debt.

    Does it count if the syllepsis is between the question and the answer?

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    It seems to me that it would be incomprehensible to a listener (I've never heard the song so feel free to correct me), but it is very interpretable in text form.

    Yes. I heard the song many times before I saw it written down, and I could never work out what that line said.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

    Look it up on YouTube. All the versions I found present those portions in a melodically spoken form. The Tony Randall version (on the old Carol Burnett show) is quite good; I saw it when I was just old enough to get the humor. Most of the audience seems only to get the seductive parts, though, not the word play. Some do, fortunately.

  8. Jeff Carney said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

    Oops. I refer of course to "Have some Madeira, m'dear."

  9. M.N. said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    I was kind of obsessed with Flanders and Swann about 10 years ago, when I was in middle school (weird as that sounds), and I don't remember ever having trouble understanding "made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door". However, that particular line was quoted in the liner notes of the CD I had, so I may have read it before hearing it.

    Hilariously, though, I realised/remembered just now (watching it on YouTube*) that I'd never understood one of the first lines of the song: "he was old, he was vile, and no stranger to vice", in fact. I'd always heard it as "no [unintelligible] device". Probably because it wasn't in the liner notes.

    In fact, I didn't really understand the song in general, being 12 years old and all.

    *at, where Flanders seems to be wearing his Edwardian, or Edw[ɔ]rdian, hat, or h[ɔ]t.

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