Paraprosdokian (pair-uh-prahz-DOHK-ee-in) is a figure of speech wherein a sentence or phrase takes an unexpected twist, leading to a surprising—and often humorous—ending. Paraprosdokians use the element of surprise to upend audience expectations and create a humorous or dramatic effect.
Paraprosdokian is a relatively recent word. The term is new enough that, while it has a presence online in Urban Dictionary, it’s not included in most standard dictionaries. The word is composed of the Greek para, meaning “beyond,” and prosdokia, meaning “expectation.”
Why Writers Use Paraprosdokians
Because the latter half of a paraprosdokian is surprising and unexpected, the figure of speech forces readers to reinterpret the beginning of the phrase. This element of surprise is particularly useful for comedic and satiric effect. Paraprosdokians engage the audience, keeping them attentive and entertained.
The Comedic Uses of Paraprosdokians
Because of the bewilderment created by this literary device’s unexpected semantic twists, this figure of speech is generally seen in comedy.
Comedians known for one-liners tend to use paraprosdokians. For example:
- Dave Chappelle: “Every black American is bilingual—we speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview.’”
- C. Fields: “Philadelphia, wonderful town. I spent a week there one night.”
- Mitch Hedberg: “I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.”
- Oscar Levant, on his morning routine: “The first thing I do is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
- Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
- Dimitri Martin: “I saw a sign that said ‘Watch for children’ and I thought, ‘That sounds like a fair trade.’”
- Joan Rivers: “I was born in 1962. And the room next to me was 1963.”
- Will Rogers: “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
- Henry Youngman: “Take my wife—please!”
- Steven Wright: “On the other hand, you have different fingers.”
Paraprosdokians in Other Media
Paraprosdokians are not limited to comedic one-liners. They can be used in a variety of situations.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put paraprosdokians to good use, including in his assessment of Americans: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.”
Churchill didn’t always use paraprosdokians for humorous effect. His famous remark “If you are going through hell, keep going” uses its surprising semantic twist to inspire his audience.
Paraprosdokians are prevalent in television shows. For example, in the episode “Much Apu About Nothing” of the long-running cartoon show The Simpsons, Homer Simpson uses the literary device when he says, “If I could just say a few words . . . I’d be a better public speaker.”
Comedian Steven Colbert frequently relied on paraprosdokians in his satiric news show The Colbert Report. For instance, he says in one episode, “If I am reading this graph correctly—I would be very surprised.”
Like TV shows, movies often employ paraprosdokians. In Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey’s character says, “Behind every great man, there’s a woman rolling her eyes.”
In the 2015 Marvel movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, when giving directions to his superhero teammates, Captain America says, “If you get hurt, hurt ‘em back. If you get killed . . . walk it off.”
Examples of Paraprosdokians in Literature
1. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In Chapter Three of Adams’s comedic novel, he describes alien ships preparing to destroy Earth by saying:
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
This humorous use of paraprosdokian both entertains the reader and sets up the ships’ impending landing.
2. Dorothy Parker, “Unfortunate Coincidence”
Parker’s famous poem reads, in its entirety:
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
Parker employs paraprosdokian in her last couplet. The short poem has been describing what appears to be a romantic situation where two lovers have declared their feelings for each other. However, Parker reverses this situation with her final two lines.
3. Fran Lebowitz, “Digital Clocks and Pocket Calculators: Spoilers of Youth”
In this essay from the comedic collection The Fran Lebowitz Reader, Lebowitz upends her reader’s expectations by saying:
Any child who cannot do long division by himself does not deserve to smoke.
This is an excellent use of paraprosdokian, as the unexpected reference to smoking at the end creates a great comedic effect.
4. Richard Siken, “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”
Near the end of Richard Siken’s long dramatic poem, he writes:
…We clutch our bellies
and roll on the floor….
When I say this, it should mean laughter,
This is a rare example of a paraprosdokian being used for dramatic effect. The poem explores the end of a romantic relationship, and the paraprosdokian “…it should mean laughter, / not poison” shocks the reader. The surprise is the concept of being poisoned, even if it is presented while simultaneously being negated.
Further Resources on Paraprosdokians
Goodreads has a wonderful list of Groucho Marx quotes, most of which are paraprosdokians.
Veteran Toastmaster Mick Coventry presents many great examples of paraprosdokians in this video for The Renaissance Speakers Toastmasters organization.
Daniel Levin Becker explores the rapper Fabolous’s use of a risqué paraprosdokian in his review of the song “I’m Raw” for The Believer magazine.