How do you punctuate zeugma?
September 13, 2007 5:25 PM   Subscribe

How do you punctuate an elliptical sentence structure? 1) Paul ate the tuna casserole; Mary, the taco salad. OR 2) Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary the taco salad. I'm feeling frustrated that I'm coming across many published examples that I find confusing to read!
posted by SMP to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would use (1) assuming I was forced to use this terrible construction at all
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:32 PM on September 13, 2007

1) is technically wrong as a semicolon is meant to separate two complete sentences. But I'm fairly certain that 2 is even more wrong, though I'm not entirely sure on why - something to with the lack of a verb in the second portion despite the presence of a new subject/object. I think.

Just avoid it. "Mary opted for the taco salad."
posted by Phire at 5:40 PM on September 13, 2007

Assuming you have to word the sentence this way, I'd say "Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary, the taco salad."
posted by flod logic at 5:46 PM on September 13, 2007

1 is, I think, correct, but it does sound awkward and so I'd avoid it. My hunch is that it IS grammatically correct as it has the implied verb, but it does rub me the wrong way.
posted by synecdoche at 5:47 PM on September 13, 2007

I think (1) would be correct, but I agree that you should avoid this structure if you can. (1) fits the example for proper semicolon use on wikipedia.

Lisa scored 2,845,770 points; Marcia, 2,312,860; and Jeff, 1,726,640.


posted by rancidchickn at 5:47 PM on September 13, 2007

#1. I think "Paul ate the tuna casserole; Mary ate the taco salad" sounds a little nicer, but ain't nothing wrong with #1.
posted by equalpants at 5:52 PM on September 13, 2007

I would go with the all-purpose em-dash:

Paul ate the tuna casserole—Mary, the taco salad.

But then again, I am no Strunk. The correct answer is probably "don't write sentences like that." Just like run-on sentences, weirdly-structured sentences are just more confusing and should be avoided. I think legally you could do it with all commas:

Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary, the taco salad.

It's a hard one to parse, but grammatically I think that's acceptable.
posted by lubujackson at 5:52 PM on September 13, 2007

I believe 1 is wrong and 2 is correct. I like this structure (of 2), it's more concise and has a bit of flair.
posted by null terminated at 6:13 PM on September 13, 2007

There is a lot of flexibility in punctuation. Really, its function is just to clarify the sentence for readers. Without any punctuation, your sentence makes little sense: "Paul ate the tuna casserole Mary the taco salad". Add some commas, indicating pretty much where a speaker would pause, and it works: "Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary, the taco salad." But, this leaves a bit of ambiguity: are we addressing Mary, and then is that taco salad just dangling there? So, the semicolon makes it crystal clear, separating two essentially parallel statements: "Paul ate the tuna casserole; Mary, the taco salad," in which the second half is really a spoken contraction: "Mary [ate] the taco salad." If that contraction were not there, it would be fine to write: "Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary scarfed down the taco salad." So basically, if the two clauses you want to string together as one thought each have internal commas, it's best to separate them with a semicolon. I would avoid the "all purpose em-dash" and reserve that for situations where you want to insert a change of thought into the middle of a sentence: "Paul ate the tuna casserole—it was his favorite dish on the SMP Diner's menu—while Mary scarfed down a taco salad."
posted by beagle at 6:17 PM on September 13, 2007 [5 favorites]

The second looks like you've got a subject (with no verb) which is a taco salad named Mary. ("Ladies and gentlemen.....I present!.....Mary the taco salad!!!")
posted by notsnot at 6:20 PM on September 13, 2007

2 is definitely wrong; 1, probably right.
posted by pokermonk at 6:21 PM on September 13, 2007

In other words, 1 is both correct and incorrect, while 2 is both correct and incorrect. Just rewrite the sentence, as it looks and sounds awkward the way it is. I like rancidchickn's reconstruction the best.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:33 PM on September 13, 2007

I'm pretty sure that "Paul at the tuna casserole, Mary scarfed down the taco salad" is a run-on. It's basically two straightforward subject-verb-object sentences tied together by a comma. That's not kosher.
posted by oddman at 6:50 PM on September 13, 2007

I don't know whether you can use a semicolon when a verb is implied (though I don't see why not), but rancidchickn's example is probably not a good guide:  the semicolon is being used there because of the commas in the numbers.
posted by solotoro at 6:50 PM on September 13, 2007

I distinctly remember being taught in high school that 1 was correct, but I have no style manual to back me up on it. basically, this construction allows you to drop the verb describing what Mary does because it's implied and backed up by the parallel structure. I just wish I could remember what it's called so I could google it.
posted by dropkick queen at 6:53 PM on September 13, 2007

#1 is both grammatically correct and perfectly reasonable stylistically. See, e.g., ;

I'm not certain why some are saying it's incorrect. Phire is, I think, confusing the idea that the semicolon is the proper punctuation to use when conjoining two complete sentences, with the suggestion that this is it's ONLY use.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:12 PM on September 13, 2007

I don't think "Paul ate the tuna casserole; Mary, the taco salad" (or the alternate punctuation) is an example of zeugma. You've got two different subjects AND two different direct objects trying to share the same verb.

Zeugma can be arranged a few different ways, but the classic setup is to have one subject and verb "yoking" two strikingly different direct objects. ("Here Thou, Great Anna! whom three Realms obey, Dost sometimes Counsel take — and sometimes Tea.")

These would be zeugma: "Paul ate the tuna casserole and Mary. Mary enjoyed the taco salad and Paul."
posted by Orinda at 7:14 PM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Surely this is pedanticalness run rampant. #2 does not violate any sensible rules of grammatical construction and seems much more natural.
posted by Neiltupper at 7:24 PM on September 13, 2007

But to actually answer the question:

The Chicago Manual of Style (14th edn.) seems to favor option #1. Anyone with the book at hand can consult paragraphs number 5.69 and 5.70, under the heading of "Elliptical Constructions." I'm not going to re-type the entries in full, but the gist of it is that when you use a comma to "indicate the omission . . . of a word or words readily understood from the context" ("Mary, the taco salad"), then semicolons should be used for clarity to set off the parallel pieces of the sentence. One of the examples given is "Thousands rushed to see him in victory; in defeat, none." This is not grammatically equivalent to Paul and Mary option #1, but pretty close.

The CMS also allows for a construction like option #2 (where no comma stands in for the omitted verb and a comma, instead of a semicolon, separates the parallel parts of the sentence) but only when "the construction is clear enough without the commas (and the consequent semicolons)." I think most of us here agree that Paul and Mary option #2 is not clear enough, although in other contexts, with other subject matter, the construction might work.

In other words, which one is "right" may really depend upon your sense of whether option #2 is "clear enough."
posted by Orinda at 7:39 PM on September 13, 2007

I would use (1) without hesitation. I'm glad to see the CMS probably backs me up (I won't check it myself).

But I think the most technically correct choice might be to insert and:

"Paul ate the tuna casserole, and Mary, the taco salad." The second comma seems optional for less formal writing.
posted by dhartung at 8:04 PM on September 13, 2007

I'm glad to hear the CMS backs me up on #1 being the more correct version. I don't know why so many people are dinging it, since it seems like a perfectly reasonable use of a semicolon.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:42 PM on September 13, 2007

First is more formal; both are widely attested in well-edited publications.

Using commas in both places is so confusing to parse that you should avoid it, and then we don't have to worry about whether it's "technically" correct or not. (I'll take the scare quotes off when you show me the English 1.0 Specification.) And this construction is a great place not to (over)use the very-useful-but-informal-and-structurally-ambiguous em-dash.

Semicolons do join two (syntactic) main clauses into one (typographical) sentence, when no conjunction is present. (No, the sentences don't have to be synonymous, although they should be semantically/pragmatically related.) 'Mary, the taco salad' is a clause; the verb is still there syntactically, even though it's silent phonologically. <geekery type="linguistic">You can tell because it's supplying tense: You can ask, 'She did?' and not just '...the taco salad?' or 'She—wait, when was this?'. Compare also 'John kissed Mary and she him', in which the silent verb still case-marks its object. </geekery>

Semicolons also serve as a sort of higher-order comma, when you're joining items that depend on commas to show their internal structure. This is why you may see semicolons joining main clauses with a conjunction. It's also a motivating factor for the semicolon in your example; the comma marks the pause for the silent verb, and you need to keep your levels of precedence straight. Otherwise it appears to collapse into the start of a list: John ate the tuna casserole, Mary, the taco salad, a bicycle wheel, Mr. Momomoto's nose, and some hash brownies.
posted by eritain at 8:52 PM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

My personal rule for punctuation is to avoid using it unless it would trip up the reader or be ambiguous without it. It slows down the eye. It's important to bear in mind that rules of punctuation are generally flexible. Consistency and clarity should be the basis of anyone's personal writing rules.

Style guides, like CMS, provide consistency for groups of writers. It's not necessary to follow one unless you are required to, but you certainly can if you want. There is nothing incorrect about either of your versions. Personally I like the second because a speaker might not necessarily pause after "Mary".
posted by strangeguitars at 9:11 PM on September 13, 2007

"Paul ate the tuna casserole and Mary ate the taco salad." Anything else is unnecessarily complicated. Option 1 is second-best, option 2 is barely acceptable, and an em dash is right out.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:35 PM on September 13, 2007

I think the semi-colon rules out the use of the implied verb: borrowing it 'across' a semi-colon seems a bridge too far. So either the second construction or, better, what kirkaracha said.
posted by londongeezer at 11:34 PM on September 13, 2007

I prefer 1, but 2 is not wrong, either.
posted by robcorr at 11:42 PM on September 13, 2007

Personally I like the second because a speaker might not necessarily pause after "Mary".

The comma is required highly desirable for clarity. Compare:
Mary the taco salad
Conan the barbarian
eritain is correct.
posted by D.C. at 11:51 PM on September 13, 2007

Neither is incorrect, 2 is in my opinion the most attractive, and the construction is in fact zeugma.

As others have said before, the various style manuals do not proscribe heavily here, but recommend using judgment based on maximizing clarity. Therefore there is always going to be debate. I like #2, despite D.C.'s good point. De gustibus not est disputandem.

And yes, this is zeugma, contrary to what Orinda says. Orinda is describing the specific type of zeugma known as syllepsis, which is the fun kind. "Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary the taco salad" is a simple prozeugma, in which the verb from the first phrase governs the rest; "Paul ate the tuna casserole, Mary her words" is prozeugma that is also syllepsis due to the dissonance in the direct objects.
posted by darksasami at 12:53 AM on September 14, 2007

2 is hideously shitty, and everyone in this thread who likes it deserves his or her ass sewn shut. It's the construction of a diseased and confused mind, and "I'm a worthless moron" joins Mary's forlorn verb in the understood but missing part of the sentence when you write it.

1 is glorious. Using it will convince people that you learned how to avoid scribbling out God-damned run-on sentences, and therefore you can be a trusted source on the eating habits of Mary and that fucking cassarole-stuffed verb-hogging assface Paul.

This is all entirely objective fact.
posted by fleacircus at 1:30 AM on September 14, 2007 [5 favorites]

I would use a dash...Paul at the tuna--Mary, the taco salad. But ultimately this is a good example of the kind of sentence that is best said and not written. In conversation, grammatical rules are bent and twisted and warped beyond all reason, but because of the inherit flexibility of English grammar (not to mention most other languages, too), we don't actually "break" these rules.

When writing, it's best to simply avoid crappy structures like this.
posted by zardoz at 2:15 AM on September 14, 2007

I concur with fleacircus so wholeheartedly that it makes me slightly ashamed.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:01 AM on September 14, 2007

Paul ate the tuna casserole and Mary had the taco salad.

#2 is way better than #1. Semicolons are addictive and should only be used when there's really no way to avoid them.
posted by Mocata at 6:32 AM on September 14, 2007

This is why we have semicolons, people! Don't clutter up your sentences with piles of commas. It's confusing. Listen to fleacircus (without, perhaps, the sewing shut of innocent asses) and go with #1.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 7:02 AM on September 14, 2007

OK, here's another word geek siding with fleacircus. (Except the ass-sewing part, which I reserve the right to apply at whim.) I doff my cap to eritain for his remarkably clear exposition of the point.
posted by GrammarMoses at 7:12 AM on September 14, 2007

OK, I consulted a few reference books and found that darksasami is right, I was conflating zeugma with the narrower category of syllepsis. D'oh! And zeugma can, as darksasami says, be used to describe a sentence where one verb "yokes" compound subjects and compound objects, though I found only one reference to this effect. (I still don't really get how SMP's example counts as prozeugma, since one of the "yoked" subjects precedes the "yoking" verb, but I'll take darksasami's word for it since darksasami is clearly better-informed on the subject.) I think the upshot is that I was wrong to say this is not zeugma, but maybe kinda sorta right in thinking that the solution to SMP's punctuation problem is unlikely to be found under that heading. "Elliptical sentence structure" looks like the more promising route for research.
posted by Orinda at 5:21 PM on September 14, 2007

I'm pretty sure that "Paul at the tuna casserole

Darmok and Jalad at the tuna casserole; Shaka, and the walls fell.
posted by dhartung at 12:15 AM on September 17, 2007

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