Paraprosdokian comes from the Greek ‘παρά’, meaning ‘against’ and ‘προσδοκία’, meaning ‘I have no clue as I don’t speak Greek.’
Did you catch that poor attempt at humor? Well, that is, in essence, what a paraprosdokian actually is.
What is a Paraprosdokian?
A paraprosdokian is when you take a famous line, commonly used phrase, or even a popular word and say it ‘as is’ for the first part — then put a twist in the latter half of it.
“If I could just say a few words, I’d be a better public speaker.” — Homer Simpson
“On the other hand, you have different fingers.” — Steven Wright
“Half of all marriages end in divorce — and then there are the really unhappy ones.” — Joan Rivers
“When someone close to you dies, move seats.” — Jimmy Carr
Another Tool For Your Writing
While the word might not yet be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, other sources do claim it as a modern word.
Regardless, different forms of the word have been in use since at least the 1st century. The use of the tool itself has probably been around for much longer.
Because comedians and satirists absolutely love it.
Take Mitch Hedburg, for example. The famous comedian said some of the most memorably dry dadlike jokes ever to be uttered.
“I haven’t slept for 10 days, because that would be too long.”
“When I was a boy, I laid in my twin-size bed…and wondered where my twin was.”
“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”
“I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.”
And just in case you think these wacky wordplays are only in the realm of comedians, here’s a bunch from famous writers:
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” — Mark Twain
“He’s a writer for the ages. For the ages of four to eight.” — Dorothy Parker
“I have the heart of a small boy — in a glass jar on my desk.” — Stephen King
“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” — A.A. Milne
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” — Joseph Heller
“When I was young I used to think that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old, I know it is.” — Oscar Wilde
I could make this a giant list of these awesome jokes, but I won’t. That’s what Google is for, lazy.
Instead, let’s take a look at how you can add examples of this literary device to your own work.
How to Write Paraprosdokians
I’ve always been a big fan of mixing in subtle and not-so-subtle humor into most of my writing.
Sure, not all occasions call for it, but when given the opportunity I always take it.
Adding in jokes, one liners, and unexpected twists is a surefire way to set your writing apart from drab run-on essays that most people will end up dying while reading long before their time.
Plus, to make a reader laugh while sitting alone reading at their computer is a joy that I truly do cherish. Even if I can’t see it, I still love the visualization.
Throwing in paraprosdokian is a perfect way to jump into the foray of humor and spice up your writing a bit.
But how do we, the humble scribbler, figure out how to include paraprosdokians in our own wordsmithing?
Well, I could sit here and write an entire process for figuring out how to play on double meanings and come up with the perfect phrase — screw that.
We live in 2021. Just like calculators in my phone rendered years of math schooling useless for me, we can just use the internet to save ourselves a lot of time.
- Find a list of famous idioms (like this list of 1,500) or phrases (like this list of 2,500) or quotes related to your topic at hand (like this famous wrong-attribution quote machine)
- Look through and select a few possible phrases that you feel are relevant — in this case, we’ll take “A watched pot never boils.”
- Then roll the phrase around in your mouth, thinking of the contrast between what’s expected next versus what would be really unexpected next
- Try a few practice runs: “A watched pot never boils, because its a pressure cooker.” — “A watched pot never boils, until you put your hand in it.” — “A watched pot never boils, because watches don’t boil.”
Then sit back, write in your new paraprosdokian, and revel in the glory that it will surely bring you. And just remember, the more you practice, the more people will laugh at you.
If you’re thirsty for more writing knowledge, head over here to learn all 74 literary devices.