• syllepsis
  • audio pronunciation
  • \suh-LEP-sis\
  • DEFINITION

noun

1
: the use of a word to modify or govern syntactically two or more words with only one of which it formally agrees in gender, number, or case
2
: the use of a word in the same grammatical relation to two adjacent words in the context with one literal and the other metaphorical in sense
  • EXAMPLES

Jeannie held the door open for her unwelcome guest and, in a clever use of syllepsis, said, "Take a hint and a hike!"

"… it works as two words in one: She shot the rapids and her boyfriend. Syllepsis produces a surprise, almost requiring the reader to go back and reparse the sentence to savor the double meaning of the word." — Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science, 2002

  • DID YOU KNOW?

Charles Dickens made good use of syllepsis in The Pickwick Papers when he wrote that his character Miss Bolo "went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan chair." Such uses, defined at sense 2 above, are humorously incongruous, but they’re not grammatically incorrect. Syllepsis as defined at sense 1, however, is something to be generally avoided. For example, take this sentence, "She exercises to keep healthy and I to lose weight." The syllepsis occurs with the verb exercises. The problem is that only one subject, "she" (not "I"), agrees with the verb. The word syllepsis derives from the Greek syllēpsis, and ultimately from syllambanein, meaning "to gather together." It has been used in English since at least 1550.

Test Your Memory: What is the linguistic term for the process by which words like pell-mell (our Word of the Day from September 16th) are formed? The answer is …

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