Hold your breath… And the door!

In syllepsis, the literal and metaphorical abide by each other – Roopa Banerjee

The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored.”

When you read a sentence like this, you’d expect to read about a third crop after potatoes and peanuts. Reading the word ‘bored’ instead takes one by surprise. The verb ‘grew’ fits both the crops and ‘bored’. Literally, the farmers grew potatoes and peanuts, but figuratively they also grew bored.

Syllepsis is the use of a word in the same grammatical relation to two adjacent words with one literal and the other metaphorical. It is derived from the Greek sullēpsis i.e ‘taking together’.

English literature abounds in syllepsis where it is often used for humour. English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) had a particular liking for this literary device. He loved the word play caused by playfully linking two phrases with different meanings using a common verb.

Some of Dickens’ classic syllepses:

‘At length Mr. Stiggins … took his hat, and his leave.’

‘Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.’
—The Pickwick Papers, 1836

In Our Mutual Friend Dickens delights his readers with his wit through this same tested technique, where the verb acts like a hinge, alternating in meaning both ways:

‘Mr. and Mrs. John Harmon… taking possession of their rightful name and their London house.’

Syllepsis has also been cleverly used in music lyrics. ‘She blew my nose and then she blew my mind’ by the Rolling Stones is a latter day example of syllepsis.

Aka zeugma, this literary technique does not always use the surprise element for humour. It can also be used to emphasise bad luck or sadness. ‘He lost his briefcase, then his job, then his mind.’ This sentence highlights despair and misfortune in a way that a normal sentence wouldn’t have.

The technique of using a verb in multiple ways prompts readers to be shaken from their stupor. When we read ‘He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men’ in Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories, the figurative burden of responsibility strikes an emotional chord with readers.

Syllepsis is also popularly used in television and entertainment. For instance in the super-hit TV show Star Trek the character Will Riker says, ‘You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.’

There are numerous instances of syllepsis in Harry Potter books. For example, ‘Dumbledore was striding serenely across the room wearing long midnight-blue robes and a perfectly calm expression.’

Syllepses tend to confuse readers or inspire them to think deeply, depending on the writer’s skill in using this figure of speech. If used ineptly, there is always the risk that the reader won’t interpret the sentence in the way you intend.

Exercise

Read through the paragraph to spot the many uses of syllepsis:

He fished for trout and compliments. He opened his mind and his wallet every time he went out with friends. When the evening was over, he would quickly take his belongings and his leave. He had exhausted his friends and their patience by the time he left.

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