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Tropes and Figures | Paraprosdokians

May 7, 2021

Many clever sayings are actually constructed on known patterns that are used by writers as models. Readers don’t often realize when models are being used and give individuals more credit than they deserve. It is possible to be too easily impressed, but knowledge will provide readers with perspective for judging true quality in the literary arts.

The use of models is not somehow “cheating,” however. The models have been used for thousands of years by writers of all cultures. Knowing the models will make you a better writer. That’s the key. In Southern’s English program, you will be taught to recognize and even name various models of great prose. William Shakespeare, for example, was well versed in the tropes and figures of ancient literature, and he used them endlessly in his poetry and dramas. He was no mere imitator, though. He mastered the models and showed their real power through his inventiveness and skill.

The figure of today’s feature is called the “paraprosdokian.” This figure is at the root of some really witty sayings. A paraprosdokian occurs when a writer leads a reader to assume something about the meaning of the first part of an expression. This assumption becomes meaningless as the saying ends. The reader has to reinterpret the first part in light of the last part.

Enjoy some of the examples below. Explain to yourself why they are all paraprosdokians.

“A man asked for a donation to a local swimming pool. I gave him a glass of water.”

“A passenger wondered about a flight delay. He asked, ‘What’s up?’ A flight attendant responded, ‘Our pilot was bothered by a sound in the engine. We had to get a new pilot.’” 

“A thief broke into my house looking for money, so I joined him.”

“Do you think there are a lot of pronouns, or is it just me?”

“I asked my North Korean friend how it was there; he said he couldn’t complain.”

“I didn’t say it was your fault. I said I was blaming you.”

“I said to the waiter, ‘How long will the spaghetti be?’ He said, ‘I don’t know—we never measure it.’”

“I saw an ad for a burial plot. I thought to myself, that’s the last thing I need.”

“I was playing chess with a friend, and he said, ‘Let’s make this interesting.’ So we stopped playing.”

“She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.”