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Paraprosdokian: Beyond a Punchline or a Turn of Phrase

What on earth is a paraprosdokian? From the Greek root words παρα (meaning “beyond”) and προσδοκία (meaning “expectation”), a paraprosdokian can be defined as a figure of speech that uses an unexpected ending that reflects upon the opening half of a phrase. The reflection is generally humorous, acting as a punchline of sorts. As Leonard LaPointe points out in Figaro and Paraprosdokian, “The clich&#233 portion that sets the bait of our expectations is suddenly withdrawn and we are left with linguistic surprise … and frequently very creative humor.”

So which part’s the clich&#233 and which is the joke? Groucho Marx offers a great example of a paraprosdokian: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” The clich&#233, of course, is the first half of the phrase, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening.” As a phrase, it’s nothing new or exciting; it’s both overused and familiar. However, Groucho Marx follows up with the humorous caveat, “but this wasn’t it.” While we’re set up to expect an explanation of his wonderful evening, we’re left with the exact opposite. His dry, satirical tone adds a good dash of humor to the dialogue.

Another famous paraprosdokian is by Homer Simpson (the cartoon character): “If I could say a few words, I would be a better public speaker.” The joke, in this instance, might be that Homer says too much, or that he can’t say anything at all– it’s open to interpretation. If the case is that Homer says too much, the humor rests in the fact that only a “few words” are needed to be a public speaker. In the opposing interpretation, he’s a public speaker who can’t say anything, so “few words” are needed in order to actually speak.

As a way of injecting humor into a situation, a paraprosdokian allows a speaker or writer to play with expectations, to introduce new meanings to tired or one-note phrases. In producing meaning, the paraprosdokian goes beyond our expectations of language and brings about laughter. At its best, a paraprosdokian heightens our awareness of the text or dialogue. Below are several examples of paraprosdokians:

  • “I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.” — Mitch Hedberg
  • “When someone close to you dies, move seats.” — Jimmy Carr
  • “Mark my words. No, Mark, I really need my words.” — Stephen Colbert
  • “If you are going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
  • “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.” — Wilson Mizner
  • “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.” — Unattributed
  • “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell

What would you add to the list? If you know any other paraprosdokians, please share by leaving a comment!

Photo by Marc J Grundy

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