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.”