Paraprosdokians and other troglodytes

Linguists come up with some very strange terminology in their quest to classify all the different permutations of language. In this blog I give a brief overview of some of these terms. You may find it interesting if thesephenomena crop up in everyday language and you may even impress your colleagues with your newly acquired knowledge!

Antanaclasis: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  – Benjamin Franklin. In this figure of speech a word or phrase is repeated within a sentence, but the word or phrase means something different each time it appears. Another two examples: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”; “In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party always finds you!” – Yakov Smirnoff.

Dangling modifier: This is a grammatical construct whereby a grammatical modifier could be misinterpreted as being associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example: “Hoping to garner favour, my parents were sadly unimpressed with the gift.” We don’t know who or what was hoping to garner favour. If we add a proper subject the modifier is not left dangling anymore: “Hoping to garner favour, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that sadly left them unimpressed.”

Donkey sentence: Donkey sentences are sentences that contain a pronoun whose reference is clear to the reader (it is bound semantically) but whose syntactical role in the sentence poses challenges to grammarians: “Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.” “Every police officer who arrested a murderer insulted him.”

False scent: Writing that causes the reader to second-guess: Because the writer knows what is coming ahead, she may forget that her reader doesn’t, and unwittingly lay a “false scent” by writing something ambiguous that can only be disambiguated later in the text. The reader, once he realises he has been distracted, must go back and rescan the sentence or paragraph to understand the writer’s intended meaning. Example: “When compiling a dictionary from postal contributions, we sort the letters in order to be able to refer to them later.”
“Letters” may be taken to be those of the alphabet, and so “order” to mean alphabetical order, laying the false scent that is not detected until the reader reaches “refer”, if even then.

Paraprosdokian: A figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” – Winston Churchill

Syntactic ambiguity: Also called amphiboly or amphibology, this is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to an ambiguous sentence structure. Example: “A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day. She said, ‘Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?’ I said, ‘All right, but we’re not going to get much done.’” – Jimmy Carr.

Crash blossom: A sentence, often a news headline, which is subject to incorrect interpretation due to syntactic ambiguity. From the headline “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.” The correct interpretation is that a blossoming violinist was linked to the crash (by her father having been on the plane). The wrong interpretation is that the violinist is linked to something called a crash blossom.

Troglodyte: OK, so this isn’t really a linguistic term, but it is nice term to have in your arsenal if you want to insult someone and sound educated at the same time. A troglodyte is a human cave dweller. From the Greek trogle (“hole, mouse-hole”) and dyein (“go in, dive in”).

And what can you do with this newly-acquired terminology? You can look out for examples in everyday language in verbal or non-verbal form, or employ these literary devices to improve your writing or to make it more entertaining.