Playing Around With Words

Zoë Sharp

This is my last post of 2010, and as such the more serious themes I was intending to touch on just don’t seem appropriate, somehow. There’s an end-of-term feel about the place at the moment, and emails from a couple of friends – plus a visit to Motorcycle Live at the NEC in Birmingham earlier this month – turned my mind to paraprosdokians.

Confession time. Until recently, I’d never come across a paraprosdokian. No, that’s not entirely true. I’d come across lots of them – I didn’t know that’s what it was, or that there was a word to describe it.

A paraprosdokian come from the Greek and means ‘beyond expectation’. Basically, it’s a figure of speech, in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is unexpected and causes you to reinterpret the first part.

So, what does a trip to the bike show have to do with any of this?

Simple – booths selling silly T-shirts. I like silly T-shirts – they suit the level of my sense of humour.



OK, that’s just a nice example of a silly T-shirt from a company called Bad Idea T-shirts and not, strictly speaking, an example of a paraprosdokian. But Groucho Marx was very good at them:

“I’ve had a wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it.”

So was Winston Churchill:

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

Not to mention Dorothy Parker:

“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised.”

I remember a stand-up routine by Emo Phillips years ago which was full of nice examples:

“I like going to the park and watching the children run and scream, because they don’t know I’m using blanks.”

“My family held a wonderful leaving party for me … according to the letter.”

“My father said, ‘I’ll miss you, son,’ because I’d broken the sights off his rifle.”

There are plenty out there, in quote or T-shirt form:


Various friends have sent me some great examples, and here’s a whole load of them (some conforming to the correct parameters more than others):

“I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.”
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
“The last thing I want to do is hurt you … but it’s still on the list.”

“Light travels faster than sound – this is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.” 

“We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.”
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
“The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” 

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”
“A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station…”
“How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?”

“I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted pay checks.”
“I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”

“Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
“Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.”

“You do not need a parachute to skydive – you only need a parachute to skydive twice …”
“The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!”
“Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.”


“A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.”
“Hospitality:  making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.”
“Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.”
“I discovered I scream the same way whether I’m about to be devoured by a great white shark or if a piece of seaweed touches my foot.”
“Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others, whenever they go.”

“Always take life with a grain of salt, plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.”
“The saying is to fight fire with fire, but remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.”


“To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”
“Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.”
“If you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, why do some people have more than one child?”
“Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.”
“Do not argue with an idiot.  He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.”



Of course, if a paraprosdokian isn’t clever enough for you, there is always a syllepsis instead, also known as a semantic zeugma, which is a zeugma where the clauses disagree in either meaning or grammar, but where the rules of grammar are bent for stylistic effect.

My favourite example of this comes from the wonderful Flanders & Swann song, ‘Have Some Madeira M’Dear’, which goes:

‘And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,

The wine, his cigar and the lamps:

“Have some Madeira, m’dear…”’


‘She lowered her standards by raising her glass,

Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.



Alanis Morissette also uses a syllepsis in ‘Head over Feet’


‘You held your breath and the door for me.’



Charles Dickens used them, like this one from THE PICKWICK PAPERS:

“She went home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair.”


“… and covered themselves in dust and glory.”

And it’s not just the literary giants who use them. They seem to be a particular favourite device of entrants to the Lyttle Lytton Contest, in which people are invited to ‘compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ such as this belter from 2001:

“Monica had exploded, and I had a mystery, and pieces of her pancreas, on my hands.”

So, ‘Rati, do you have any favourite examples of a paraprosdokian, a syllepsis, a zeugma, or just a silly T-shirt slogan, that you’d like to share?

Happy Holidays to everyone, by the way, and wishing you health, luck and happiness for 2011!


31 thoughts on “Playing Around With Words

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Loved every one, Zoe. Of course there are words for these situations and of course they are tongue twisters and it's a shame we don't use them in everyday conversation. Challenge: work the phrase "a semantic zeugma" or the word paraprosdokia into your discussions today. 🙂
    At, I like to get the Despair Inc calendar of de-motivational posters each year.
    It just suits my humor.
    # Blame. The secret to success is knowing who to blame for your failures.
    # Conformity. When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
    # Curiosity. Some places remain unknown because no one has ventured forth. Others remain so because no one has ever come back.
    # Elitism. It's lonely at the top, but it's comforting to look down upon everyone at the bottom.
    Merry Christmas Eve Eve!

  2. Alafair Burke

    I'm terrible at stuff like this, but Steven Wright is really good at them.

    I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.
    Everyone has a photographic memory. Some just don't have film.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I love Steven Wright's totally deadpan style of delivery, but those two you mentioned are new ones to me. Lovely. Ones I remember of his are:

    "I bought a black and white dog, because the licence was cheaper."
    "Yesterday I saw a subliminal advertising executive … just for a second."

  4. Karen in Ohio

    Zoe, thank you for the educational and highly entertaining blog today.

    Wish I could remember even one that you haven't already posted, but pre-holiday brain numbness has set in.

    I'll try to work the word into a conversation, if I can remember it! Merry Christmas Eve Eve to you, too!

  5. Eika

    Most of my favorites were on there. But here's a few more:

    A conclusion is where you got tired of thinking.

    It's always in the last place you look because no one keeps looking after finding something.

    After God made you, he took a good look and said, 'Woops.'

  6. JD Rhoades

    My favorite Stephen Wrightism: "It's a small world, but I'd hate to have to paint it."

    Runner up: "I once played poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and three people died."

  7. Sylvia

    I wish I had a contribution today but all I can say is – wonderful post, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Wasn't sure you were still talking to me … ;-[

    More great ones from Mr Wright. There was another one of his that came to mind – something about if you're in a car travelling through space at the speed of light, and you turn the headlights on, does it make any difference?

  9. pari noskin taichert

    Loved this post. Every one of those made me laugh. Is that part of the point? I have to say the line from Madeira really got to me: "She lowered her standards by raising her glass." Wonderful.

    I know I know a lot of these, but I guess it's stage fright that has x-ed all of them out of my mind.

    But here's one that used to hang up in my Dad's office; he was a dentist.
    "No, you don't have to floss every single one of your teeth . . .
    just the ones you want to keep."

  10. R.J. Mangahas

    Here's one of my favorites: "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

    Hope you have a good holiday, Zoe.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I'm a big fan of Flanders & Swann. Just about all their stuff was incredibly witty and great fun.

    Love the dentist one – and my dentist will, too ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Ooh, writer put-downs are a whole sub category by themselves – that's a great one.

    Reminds me of what was purportedly a genuine rejection letter sent out by an editor who did not suffer fools gladly.

    "I am returning the ream of paper you kindly sent me, as someone appears to have written on it…"


  13. Allison Brennan

    I got my 14 year old teenager two shirts that really suit her personality:

    "NATIONAL SARCASM SOCIETY: Like we need your support."

    "HISTORY BUFF. I'd like you more if you were dead."

    Kelly is very quiet and introverted, at least in crowds. On her backpack last year she had a button that said, "I'm not shy. I'm just quietly observing my prey."

  14. Jake Nantz

    I don't know that many of the ones you're describing, but I have always been a huge fan of Steven Wright, and several of his stick in my head at the moment:

    "I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone."

    "I live at the end of a one-way dead-end street. I don't know how I got there."

    "For my birthday I got a humidifier and a de-humidifier. I put them in the same room and let them fight it out."

    "I installed a skylight in my apartment. The people above me are furious!"

    "What's another word for Thesaurus?"

    Guy's a comic genius, I tell ya!

  15. KDJames

    I always love your words of the day but especially love these parapapadocka-whatever-isms, Zoë! Most fun I've had all day, so thank you. I don't have any to contribute, as all the ones writing themselves in my head are either profane or lewd. Funny how that happens. Might have something to do with that first pic up there. 😉

    I return the greeting with enthusiasm and wish you and your loved ones good health, much luck and every happiness for 2011!

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Love all those, especially the one about the one-way, dead-end street. Don't remember most of 'em though. I'm going to have to either see this guy do his act, or get the DVD.

    Too late for Santa to hear my plea, I fear ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi KD

    I personfully edited out all the ones likely to cause offence. I'm amazed there are so many left. That mind/gutter T-shirt is perfect for me, too. If there's a double entendre to be giggled at, I'm usually the one in bits on the floor.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi wholesale NFL jerseys – is that a family name?

    If you're going to spam me, at least be creative about it. This isn't even good spam. What take on what 'issue'? It's old spam that's been left open in the back of the cupboard until even the mice won't touch it because of the green fur growing on the top, that's what this is.

    Sheesh …

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rochelle

    Glad to provide you with amusement. I have a file called 'nice lines' on my computer, into which most of this lot will probably be archived. I'll find a home for them somewhere. They're very much Charlie Fox's sense of humour.

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