Sunday, 29 May 2016


“I never forget a face - but in your case I’ll make an exception.”

When Groucho Marx came out with this pearl of wisdom, he was just being his normal funny self, and possibly unaware of the name of the figure of speech.
This rather strange sounding tongue twister of a word, paraprosdokian, refers to a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is unexpected in a way that causes the reader to reinterpret the first part.

The term itself is derived from Greek and translates literally as beyond expectation.  

Paraprosdokian is a word-play type of literary device.  It results in a linguistic u-turn which results in humour or surprise.  Apparently some paraprosdokians can change the initial meaning of an initial phrase and play on the double meanings of words. This creates syllepsis[i].

But let’s not complicate things.  Consider another example or two.
Winston Churchill allegedly loved using them and this is one example:-

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else.”

Woody Allen philosophised with this paraprosdokian:-

“Contemporary man finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith.  He is what we fashionably call alienated.  He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophies, he’s been to singles bars.”
It is the end phrase which surprises – and is intended to amuse.

This seemingly arcane subject was drawn to my attention some time ago when a friend provided me with a list of paraprosdokians.   
Now that you know what they intend, the following examples might provoke some debate and possibly produce additional examples.  (Perhaps even one that includes the word paraprosdokian?).

·         Where there’s a will, I want to be in it;
·         I used to be indecisive – now I’m not so sure;
·         Nostalgia.  Is it really a thing of the past;
·         change is inevitable, except from a vending machine;
·         money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes misery easier to live with;
·         the last thing I want to do is hurt you – but it’s still on my list;
·         since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak;
·         if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong;
·         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 that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad;
·         they begin the evening news with “good evening,” then proceed to tell you why it isn’t;
·         to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research;
·         buses stop in bus stations, trains stop in train stations. On my desk is a work station;
·         in filling out an application, where it says “in case of emergency notify,” I put Doctor;
·         I didn’t say it was your fault - I just said I was blaming you;
·         a clear conscience is a sure sign of a fuzzy memory;
·         you don’t need a parachute to skydive – you only need a parachute to skydive twice;
·         there’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away;
·         going to church doesn’t  make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car;
·         where there’s a will, there are relatives.

A friend spotted this paraprosdokian recently in the i newspaper, its quote of the day:-

"You've no idea what a low opinion I have of myself - and how little I deserve it"  
W S Gilbert

In a year when attention is focused on the master of word play, William Shakespeare, it’s timely to ponder on examples that amuse and surprise us today.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[i] “Syllepsis is a figure of speech in which a word is applied to two others of which it grammatically suits only one.” Oxford Dictionaries