Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Paraprosdokian Delight!

I hadn’t heard or read the word “paraprosdokian” since my college days, but late last week, it was the subject line of an e-mail I got from my youngest sister. She’s an elementary school teacher in Oshkosh, and I hope she’s not inflicting paraprosdokians on her fifth-grade class!

A paraprosdokian (the word comes from Greek, meaning “beyond expectation”) is a sentence that ends in an unusual way, where you think you know how the sentence is going to end, but then there’s a twist at the end. Groucho Marx and Henny Youngman were among the best practitioners of the paraprosdokian. One of Groucho’s many fine paraprosdokians: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” And there’s Henny Youngman’s most famous line: “Take my wife – please!”

They teach stuff like this in creative writing classes. Sometimes the paraprosdokian is a single sentence, like “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car” or “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.” Sometimes they’re two sentences, like “You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice” or “Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.”

I vaguely recall being taught, in some class many years ago, about the “garden path sentence”, where the ear is led to believe the sentence is going to conclude one way, and it doesn’t, such as “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” Often, it’s two short sentences that create the garden path, as in “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

I’m not sure what this is called, but I pulled it on my kids in their pre-teen years just about every week, and they (politely?) laughed every time. I guess it’s sort of a riddle, and it goes “What does a dog do that a man slips on?” The answer is “pants”, and it’s all in how you deliver the line, but it became a ritual in our house that whenever I started saying “What does a dog do…” the kids would have a contest to see who could be the first to yell “PANTS!!!!!”

I love words, and how we use them. I guess that’s why I was so tough on the broadcasters and news writers I worked with for decades. Back then, one of my favorite lines was “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”


  1. “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx

  2. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.

  3. I love this one! Never knew the word for what it was, either, but think Oscar Wilde had mastered it, too....

  4. My mother always wanted children. Imagine how she felt when I came along. (Thanks, Groucho)

    It is perhaps a bit of irony that the University of Kentucky, in a state that has lately given us such deep thinkers as Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, hosts a Web page featuring a glossary of rhetorical terms, replete with examples. Word lovers may find it amusing. Access it thusly:

    The site's example-gatherers seem to have presumed readers will possess fluency in Latin, but it is not really necessary.

    Here you will find this well-preserved Socratic chestnut: "The fact is, as we said at the beginning of our discussion, that the aspiring speaker needs no knowledge of the truth about what is right or good... In courts of justice no attention is paid whatever to the truth about such topics; all that matters is plausibility... Never mind the truth -- pursue probability through thick and thin in every kind of speech; the whole secret of the art of speaking lies in consistent adherence to this principle."

    Chiasmus and syllepsis are favorites of mine, but it is not an example of gratuitous litotes to say the lack of discourse on puns leaves me speechless.

    Puns, after all, are about how words work. Just remember never to release one until it is fully groan.

    Adroit acyrologiacs have no ear for puns, and are not likely to be numbered among the great writers or speakers, unless you count the comic effect.

    Even the estimable Dan Quayle seemed to understand that problem, and how to solve it, when he warned that "Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things."