April 14, 2007

Syllepsis, aka WTF Coordination

Barbara Partee sent in a quotation from Andrew E. Kramer, "Markets Suffer After Russia Bans Immigrant Vendors", NYT, 4/13/2007:

Under the decree, seen as one of the more draconian anti-immigrant measures in Europe, only Russian citizens can sell vegetables.

“They are happy to buy my spices, but in the street there is hate for immigrants,” Mr. Umarov said, spooning dried mint leaves into a bag with practiced care.

While Mr. Umarov has kept a low profile and his business running, thousands of immigrant market workers have closed their stalls across Russia. [emphasis added]

(If it's not obvious to you why this phrase caught Barbara's eye, consider the analogous case "He made a mess and his mother angry".)

People (including us here at Language Log) often use "zeugma" as a term for this kind of non-parallel parallelism. But as the wikipedia explains, we should really call this "syllepsis", which

... is a particular type of zeugma in which the clauses are not parallel either in meaning or grammar. The governing word may change meaning with respect to the other words it modifies. This creates a semantic incongruity which is often humorous. Alternatively, a syllepsis may contain a governing word or phrase which does not agree grammatically with one or more of its distributed terms. This is an intentional construction bending the rules of grammar for stylistic effect.

Among its examples of syllepsis, the same article quotes from the Flanders and Swan lyric Madeira M'Dear, which features this figure of speech prominently, if not obsessively:

He had slyly enveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
The wine, his cigar and the lamps
"Have some Madeira, m'Dear!
You really have nothing to fear.
Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass
And the fate of the maiden who topes,
She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.
She let go her glass with a shrill little cry.
Crash! Tinkle! It fell to the floor.
When he asked "what in Heaven?" she made no reply,
Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

Here at Language Log Plaza, we've taken to describing similar cases with one of our own contributions to rhetorical terminology, "WTF Coordination":

WTF Grammar (3/8/2005)
More WTF Coordinations (3/11/2005)
Still more WTF Coordinations (4/11/2005)
A recipe for WTF Coordination (6/21/2005)
Still more declaration of independence (7/10/2005)
WTF Coordination in the bullpen (4/7/2006)
A racy WTF Coordination (5/10/2006)
Billions for X-ray machines and we're not any safer (8/14/2006)
Risky RNR (9/13/2006)

Syllepsis, like the other figures of speech in the glossary of classical rhetoric, originally described cases where writers like Flanders and Swann have chosen to to use a non-parallel conjunction as a joke or for some other calculated effect. In contrast, our classical examples of WTF Coordination are mostly cases in which a writer produces a jarring or distracting non-parallel conjunction without meaning to do so. (A couple of examples: "If you have an older Mac and upgraded the processor, don't expect it to work or support from Apple." "She lets the 'pops' freeze partway before placing a Popsicle stick in the middle, and freezes them till firm and someone wants a quick snack.")

But often, it's hard to tell which of these descriptions applies. When Andrew Kramer wrote that "Mr. Umarov has kept a low profile and his business running", was he choosing a clever turn of phrase, like Alanis Morisette's "You held your breath and the door for me"? Or did he simply fail to notice, due to deadline pressures or a high tolerance for conjunctive non-parallelism?

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 14, 2007 08:37 AM