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points out in Figaro and Paraprosdokian, “The cliché portion that sets the bait of our expectations is suddenly withdrawn and we are left with linguistic surprise … and frequently very creative humor.”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 cliché 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 cliché, 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

  • The Word Guy
    Posted at 08:12h, 08 October Reply

    I heard this word for the first time about 10 minutes ago and am curious as to its provenance. It’s etymology is easy enough to work out but does anyone know of the first recorded use of this word? The OED doesn’t have it so there’s one avenue of investigation shut down 😉

  • Catherine Smith Sharper Powell
    Posted at 08:27h, 19 October Reply

    I’ll keep you in my prayers, if I remember what you just told me.

    The reason I created this paraprosdocian is because so many people hastily blurt the phrase, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” To the speaker, it seems the correct thing to say; however, it generally has little or no meaning to me when I hear it. I have never known a person to jot what I shared with them or say call and remind me of this matter… I might forget, so e-mail me so I can put you on my prayer list, etc. In conclusion, here is another original quote from me, “Everyone doesn’t think alike, but tries to act alike in certain situations.”

  • David Ryder
    Posted at 16:19h, 30 October Reply

    I do not know if this is a Paraprosdokian but I use it at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance:
    …with liberty and justice for all who can afford a good lawyer.

  • Tealdrex
    Posted at 17:07h, 19 November Reply

    This town really grows on you… like a parasite. — Tara Drexler

  • roy olson
    Posted at 08:32h, 27 June Reply

    I didn’t know what paraprosdokian meant, so I consulted an entomologist.

    Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.

  • Dr George Brown
    Posted at 10:02h, 16 April Reply

    “Man and his money is soon parted, but my wife is still champion!”

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