Do you like to read a story with a twist? Good writing keeps you on your toes and, personally, I love surprises (benevolent ones, not jump-out-of-the-bushes ones). Humorists, comedians, and satirists use this device a lot—famously, Groucho Mark, Henny Youngman and Stephen Wright.
A “paraprosdokian” is what you call it when the last part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.
Reportedly, Winston Churchill, Ronald Regan, and other historical figures loved paraprodokians:
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”–Ronald Reagan
“You know nothing for sure…except the fact that you know nothing for sure.” –John F. Kennedy
“We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” –Winston Churchill
Keep an ear out for them in movies or on TV:
“I hope that someday you’ll know the indescribable joy of having children and of paying someone else to raise them.” –The Addams Family
“Her lips said ‘No,’ but her eyes said ‘read my lips.’” –Frasier
Funny people use them to get a laugh:
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” —Groucho Marx (or possibly, an earlier comedian, Hugh Herbert)
“I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.” —Mitch Hedberg
“On the other hand, you have different fingers.” —Steven Wright
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
—Jim Brewer, sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx
“He taught me housekeeping—when I divorce, I keep the house.” –Zsa Zsa Gabor
Sometimes they make you stop in your tracks, but not necessarily for a laugh:
- Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
- To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
- You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
- You’re never too old to learn something stupid.
- I’m supposed to respect my elders, but now it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one.
- Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
- If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
- I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
Ready to play with your own paraprosdokian? (To say it, break it into 3 parts: para-pros-dokian.)
Never mind the label, just see how many “turn of a phrase” examples you can create. It’s great practice for honing your writing to be engaging, never boring. Also, every reader loves to enjoy a chuckle. Here are a few more examples to get your own creative juices flowing:
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” –Mark Twain
“Take my wife—please!” —Henny Youngman
“There but for the grace of God—goes God.” —Winston Churchill
“If I could just say a few words … I’d be a better public speaker.” —Homer Simpson
“If I am reading this graph correctly—I’d be very surprised.” —Stephen Colbert
“On his feet he wore … blisters.” —Aristotle
“War does not determine who is right—only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell
One way to get started is to find common sayings and phrases, and simply rewrite the ending. I don’t know the author, but one of my favorites is: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think of dividing everyone into two kinds of people, and those that don’t.”
The ancient Greeks used such figures of speech for both comedy and philosophy. Exercise your brain and pen your own. I hope you’ll share them with me!