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What On Earth Is a Paraprosdokian?

The English language is full of strange features that make it more and more interesting, the more you learn. For example, one thing that makes English a great language for comedy is its flexible grammar.

This allows you to change the order of words in a sentence more than in many other languages, and it also means that the meaning of a sentence is often ambiguous. If something is ambiguous, this means that there could be more than one meaning or interpretation.

For beginners, this can be quite annoying, but as you become more and more fluent in English, you will start to see how ambiguous phrases are often used to make a joke.

Let’s take paraprosdokians. This is a long and tricky word – and if we’re honest with you, it’s not even English – it comes from Ancient Greek! In Greek, para (or παρά) means against and prosdokia (προσδοκία) means expectation. A paraprosdokian, then, is a sentence that goes against what you would expect. In other words, it uses the first clause to make a statement that sounds clear and straightforward, but then the second clause completely changes the meaning, usually in a way that makes people laugh!

For example, a famous paraprosdokian joke by the comedian Mitch Hedberg goes like this:

“I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.”

If you say in English “I haven’t slept for ten days”, this usually means that you have had ten bad nights of sleep (or you have been awake for ten days without sleeping!). However, if you said “I slept for ten days”, that would mean that you stayed asleep for ten days.

The idea here is that the first part of the sentence sounds like a normal, straightforward phrase, but the second part changes the meaning, making a joke out of the fact that the sentence is actually ambiguous.

Paraprosdokians work when they start with a phrase that you don’t notice is ambiguous at first, but you look at it in a different way because of the bit that follows. They go against your expectations.

Here are some more examples:

  1. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on the list.

What it means: Usually if you say “the last thing I want to do is…” that means you would never, ever do something. However, the “last thing I do” could also be the final task on a list, so the joke here is that you do want to hurt the person – you just have some other things to do first.

  1. Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

What it means: This one is a play on the common expression “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, which means that if you want to do something enough, you will find a way to do it. However, a will is also a document that people write that says who gets their money when they die. If you are “in” a will, it means you will get some money!

  1. I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

What it means: This is a joke by the famous comedian and filmmaker, Groucho Marx. If you say “I’ve had a wonderful evening,” you are normally talking about the evening that has just finished. Marx makes a joke out of the fact that if you say “I’ve had…”, it really means that something happened at some point in the past, not necessarily just before.

Do you wish you could understand all the jokes you hear in English? Get fluent with our range of English courses at www.Eurocentres.com