Definition of Paraprosdokian

Paraprosdokian is a derivative of a Greek word, which means beyond expectation. It is a wordplay type of literary device. Its final part of a phrase or sentence is unexpected. Its unexpected or surprised shift in meaning appears at the end of a stanza, series, sentence or paragraph. Paraprosdokian is a linguistic U-turn that results in humor or surprise.

It is a phrase or sentence that ends in an unexpected way. This causes readers to reinterpret the opening phrase or sentence of a text. Often, it is used to create comic effect. Some paraprosdokians change the meaning of an initial phrase, and play on the double meanings of the words; hence, creates syllepsis.

Examples of Paraprosdokian from Famous People

There are many one-liner paraprosdokian examples from famous people. Such as:

  • Dorothy Parker: “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
  • Winston Churchill: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else
  • Albert Einstein: “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.
  • Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.
  • Zsa zsa Gabore: “He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce I keep the house.”

Examples of Paraprosdokian from Literature


Example #1

Contemporary man, of course, has no such peace of mind. He finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith. He is what we fashionably call ‘alienated.’ He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars.”

(My Speech to the Graduates by Woody Allen)

Here, Allen discusses a serious topic of the meanings of human life. The “singles bars” topic is not as significant as the preceding topics; making it an unexpected ending.

Example #2

Trin Tragula–for that was his name–was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot

(The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams)

In the following lines, the author enumerates the great (“a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher”) traits of a character named Trin Tragula. However, he ends his litany of the character’s good traits by mentioning how Trin Tragula’s wife perceives him (“as his wife would have it, an idiot”). This ending is a surprise to the readers and creates comic effect.

Example #3

Religion makes beauty enchanting,
And even where beauty is wanting,
The temper and mind,
Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre….

(The Cottage Maid by Patrick Branwell Bronte)

In this excerpt, the poet is talking about religion throughout the first four lines. However, in the last line, there is a sudden shift of sense. “Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre” gives a completely different meaning from the rest of text.

Example #4

By the wide lake’s margin I mark’d her lie–
The wide, weird lake where the alders sigh–
A young fair thing, with a shy, soft eye;
And I deem’d that her thoughts had flown…,
All motionless, all alone.

Then I heard a noise, as of men and boys,
And a boisterous troop drew nigh.
Whither now will retreat those fairy feet?
Where hide till the storm pass by?
On the lake where the alders sigh…….
For she was a water-rat.

(Shelter by Charles Stuart Calverley)

Shelter is one of the examples of paraprosdokian in poetry form. In first two stanzas, the readers are led to believe that the subject is a beautiful woman (“A young fair thing, with a shy, soft eye;…/ Whither now will retreat those fairy feet?”). However, with the revelation in the last line (that the subject is a “water-rat”) the poet makes them stop and want to reread the poem.

Function of Paraprosdokian

The unexpected ending is used to create humorous and comic effects. It causes the readers to reinterpret or rethink the opening part of a phrase, sentence, stanza, or paragraph. Sometimes it is used to provide dramatic effects, while at other times, it produces anti-climax due to which it is very popular among satirists and comedians. Paraprosdokian is employed in poetry, prose and films as well. Musicians make use of this device, too.

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