Semantic Relations in the Phenomenon of Syllepsis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

23 Pages, Grade: 1- (A-)




1. Ambiguity
1.1. Linguistic ambiguity
1.2. Poetic ambiguity

2. Zeugma.

3. Syllepsis
3.1.Syntactic syllepsis
3.2. Semantic syllepsis
3.2.1. Ambiguous word as a bracket
3.2.2. Vague word as a bracket

4. Punning as the communicative effect of syllepsis

Which of ye will be mortal to redeem




The following investigation deals with a language phenomenon that is a potent instrument to bring about humour. This phenomenon produces a comic effect which is unexpected and as if out of nowhere, therefore, giving immense linguistic pleasure, as in: John and his driver’s licence expired last Thursday (Cruse 2000:108). Conversely, Shakespeare drew his puns on this phenomenon, as in:

Thou seest the heavens as troubled with many man’s act,

Threaten his bloody stage

(Shakespeare Macbeth, II.iv.5-6),[1]

Surprisingly, the phenomenon was originally viewed as “a degenerate kind of wit” in the enlightened eighteenth century (cf. Wales 1989:385). It may take the form of a grammatical error resulting from false coordination, as in: Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte? (Schiller)[2], or, serve as a rhetoric figure based on ellipsis, as in: She went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair (Dickens).[3]

What this phenomenon exploits is ambiguity, grammatical as well as lexical, which is regarded as one of the major characteristics of poetic language (cf. Empson 1961).What it often results in is punning, considered to be a manifestation of ambiguity (cf. Leech 1969:205-214). This phenomenon can therefore be seen as a mechanism employed by poetic language to bring ambiguity to the foreground. This characteristically unusual phenomenon is called syllepsis.

1. Ambiguity

Oxford English Dictionary (further on, OED) defines ambiguity as: “the capability of being understood in two or more ways; double or dubious signification, ambiguousness”.[4] However, this concept has special implications when applied to different disciplines, especially, to linguistics and literary studies.

1.1. Linguistic ambiguity

In linguistics, ambiguity is considered a linguistic universal, common to all languages due to the arbitrariness of the relations between the sign and its meaning. Although ambiguity functions on all levels of linguistics, it would be wise to consider here only grammatical and lexical ambiguities. In order to further restrict the scope of investigation, ambiguity will be hereafter used for sentences only and defined, according to Kooij (1972:5), as ”that property of a sentence that it can be interpreted in more that one way.” It appears that sentences like The soldiers took the port at night are undoubtedly ambiguous[5] due to the homonymy of the word port which can mean either ‘harbour’ or ‘alcoholic beverage’. On the other hand, sentences like Paul is coming to dinner tonight are not considered ambiguous by many linguists, notwithstanding the possible ambiguity of proper names. Furthermore, Kooij (1972:6) proposes to regard all sentences in question as types and not from the communicative or contextual point of view as tokens. Otherwise, their ambiguity would depend on the unique situation or context and, thus, would be too variegated for the investigation.

A distinction must be made between the grammatical ambiguity and the lexical ambiguity of a sentence. “A grammatically ambiguous sentence is any sentence to which there is assigned more that one structural analysis at the grammatical level” (Lyons 1977:400). Sentences like He hit the man with a stick have at least two interpretations which are determined on the basis of their constituent structure. Under one interpretation, with the stick is an adjunct in the noun phrase the man with the stick; under the other interpretation it is a complement to the predicate phrase hit the man. It could also be argued that the preposition ‘with’ has two different meanings, thus making the sentence lexically ambiguous at the same time. Lyons maintains however, that the emphasis lies not on the alleged polysemy of the preposition, but on the fact that ”grammatical ambiguity is at least partly dependent upon the way in which the language-system is analysed” (1977:401). Apart from grammatical structure, there are still a great number of ambiguous sentences where the source of ambiguity is presented by homonymy or polysemy. For example, They found hospitals and charitable institutions can be either seen as a sentence containing the verb ‘found’ in the present tense, or, alternatively, the verb ‘find’ in the past tense. However, the above sentence is not only grammatically ambiguous, but also lexically ambiguous due to the fact that the lexical meaning of the homonyms ‘found’ and ‘find` is a source of ambiguity as well.


[1] quoted in Wales 1989:445

[2] quoted in Groddeck 1995:173

[3] quoted in Wales 1989:445

[4] OED:

[5] The term ‘ambiguous sentence’ will be used here for reasons of practical convenience; it conforms to the definition of the sentence in the generative grammar; however, in the traditional grammar the above is seen as an ambiguous utterance associated with two different sentences (cf. Lyons 1977:397).

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Semantic Relations in the Phenomenon of Syllepsis
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
Hauptseminar Studies in English Semantics
1- (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
499 KB
Syllepsis, Semantics, Zeugma, Ambiguity, Pun, Parallel constructions
Quote paper
MA Irina Giertz (Author), 2003, Semantic Relations in the Phenomenon of Syllepsis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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