A Little Happier: Paraprosdokian is Much Funnier Than It Sounds

One thing that makes me happy is to encounter examples of the figure of speech called paraprosdokian. This is a figure of speech in which the latter half of a statement or a phrase has an unexpected ending, which makes the listener reinterpret the first part. In Greek, the word means “against expectations,” and it’s this kick of surprise that makes these statements funny or memorable.

I wrote a short biography of Winston Churchill, called Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, and one thing I loved about writing that book was reading all the funny things that Churchill said. Many of them are examples of paraprosdokian.

In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill observed: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Once, when he appeared to be asleep in his seat in the House of Commons, a fellow Member of Parliament asked, “Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?” “No,” said Churchill, “it is purely voluntary.”

Here are some other examples:

Stephen King: “I have the heart of a small boy—in a glass jar on my desk.”

Homer Simpson: “If I could say a few words, I would be a better public speaker.”

Groucho Marx “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Other famous ones:

  • “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”
  • “Take my advice; I’m not using it.”
  • “Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.”
  • “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”
  • “You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.”
  • “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.”
  • “There are three kinds of people in the world – those who can count, and those who can’t.”
  • “I’m supposed to respect my elders, but now it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one.”

As I go through the world, I look for examples of paraprosdokian. It’s surprising how much pleasure I get when I identify a new one.




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