Every so often, the English language introduces a term that seems foreign. Case in point: Zeugma, derived from the Greek word for 'yoking' or 'bonding', is a figure of speech where a word, typically a verb or an adjective, applies to multiple nouns, blending together distinct ideas in terms of grammar and logic. For instance, in the sentence 'Rana lost his raincoat and his temper,' the verb 'lost' applies to both 'raincoat' and 'temper', which are logically and grammatically different concepts being combined. This exemplifies zeugma.

English literature provides numerous instances of Zeugma. Alexander Pope wrote of Queen Anne: 'Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey, Dost sometimes Counsel take — and sometimes Tea.' Tennyson’s zeugma is pitch-perfect: 'The moment and the vessel passed.' Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer mentions people who 'covered themselves with dust and glory'. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers described how 'Miss Bolo […] went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.' In Oliver Twist, Dickens portrays a character 'alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey'. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: 'I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house… where the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress'. Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses offers a more recent example: 'We were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.' Even in a more contemporary context, Star Trek: The Next Generation features a zeugma: 'You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.' Here, the verb 'execute' applies to both laws and citizens.

Zeugma has the ability to make mundane ideas more engaging and entertaining: 'He fished for trout and compliments.' 'Every time he went out with her, he had to open his mind and his wallet.' 'She opened the door and her heart to the homeless child.' 'In quick succession, Shazia lost her job, her house and her mind.' 'By the end of the first day of their summer vacation, she had already exhausted her kids and her patience.' And the classic: 'All over Ireland, the farmers grew potatoes, barley and bored.' Zeugma links unrelated terms — mental with moral, abstract with physical, high with low — and generates surprise and effect.

As a literary device, zeugma sharpens style and enhances the readability of simple ideas. For instance, if describing someone who invested life savings in a boat, only to have it capsize on the first day at sea due to a storm, one could write: 'His boat sank in the storm. He could no longer fulfill his dreams.' Alternatively, a zeugma could be employed: 'The storm sank his boat and his dreams.' Which do you think most readers would find more impactful?

While discussing grammar, let’s also differentiate zeugma from 'syllepsis'. Like zeugma, syllepsis employs a single verb for multiple parts in a sentence, but the verb applies grammatically and logically to only one. For example, in the Biblical sentence, Exodus 20:18, 'And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking', the verb 'saw' logically applies only to the lightning and the smoking — you can only hear thundering and trumpeting! That’s syllepsis. Similar is Tennyson’s line from Ulysses, 'He works his work, I mine', where the verb 'works' is grammatically correct with 'he' but incorrect with 'I'. However, unless one is a grammarian, the difference is negligible. As long as it works, it doesn’t matter. Or to use a zeugma, let’s drop our red pencils and our pretensions...