The art of the zeugma

A reminder to myself to be aware of the power of ambiguity within my own work and of the different forms it can take.

Ambiguity can often be caused through intentional or intentional use of zeugma and syllepsis:

In rhetoric, zeugma (/ˈzjuːɡmə/ (listen); from the Ancient Greek ζεῦγμα, zeûgma, lit. “a yoking together”[1]) and syllepsis (/sɪˈlɛpsɪs/; from the Ancient Greek σύλληψις, sullēpsis, lit. “a taking together”) are figures of speech in which a single phrase or word joins different parts of a sentence.

In my doctoral thesis, I noted that the words ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ were combined to produce different kinds of ambiguity:

Zeugmas are figures of speech that join two or more parts of a sentence into a single noun, such as ‘digital literacy’. It is unclear here whether the emphasis is upon the ‘digital’ (and therefore an example of a prozeugma) or upon the ‘literacy’ (and therefore a hypozeugma). Which is the adjective?

Once you’ve spotted your first zeugma, you see them everywhere. They can be used to enlighten but also to deceive. I’m often a fan: terms where two words are ‘yoked together’ can be incredibly productive, leading to breakthroughs in groups that would otherwise be directionless.

The way this approach works is to play around with the boundary of what something denotes (i.e. represents) and what it connotes (i.e. implies).


Within this overlap are different types of ambiguity, which I usually represent with the continuum of ambiguity (below). This is explained in more detail within a paper I wrote with my thesis supervisor, but broadly speaking:

  • Generative ambiguity — works for you
  • Creative ambiguity — works for people like you with domain knowledge
  • Productive ambiguity — works for most people
  • Dead metaphor — cliché with no power
Continuum of ambiguity

What’s interesting in my work is that I get to collaborate with quite a few different organisations, either as clients or as sister organisations working towards a shared goal.

There have been some interesting zeugmas that arise and do some important work at the level of Creative Ambiguity and Productive Ambiguity. For example: Cooperative Technologists [CoTech] where it’s often unclear as to whether we’re cooperative technologists or cooperative technologists. Is the emphasis on the former or the latter?

My experience is that while zeugmas open up space for productive discussion and action, the terms themselves are usually on a journey. They may move in a linear way from Generative through Creative, to Productive Ambiguity before becoming a Dead Metaphor. But more often, they oscillate between Creative Ambiguity and Productive Ambiguity, with the terms being reinvigorated every so often with new insights and impetus.

In general, this post on a oft-neglected blog is mostly a reminder to myself to be aware of the power of ambiguity within my own work and of the different forms it can take.

Vagueness is, of course, always to be avoided (and sits to the left of Generative Ambiguity) but it’s actually quite a rare thing in my world.

Vagueness, ambiguity, and pragmatism

One of my favourite things about the Web is the ease at which serendipity occurs. We take it for granted these days but occasionally wonderful things happen that make us rediscover the joy of connection.

I was browsing The Setup, a wonderful site that interviews people about the hardware and software they use. Being particularly interested in those using Linux (as I do these days) I was delighted to come across John MacFarlane’s interview.

MacFarlane is a Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley and his website details both his interests and academic papers. I was delighted to come across a paper entitled Vagueness as Indecision, which is available as a preprint download.

It’s been a while since I studied formal logic at university, but I managed to get by while reading this paper, especially as MacFarlane gives homely examples. He takes an expressivist position in taking the position that, “vagueness… is literally indecision about where to draw lines”.

On page seven, and quoting a character from Spiderman in passing, MacFarlane states:

In principle, I can use ‘that’ to refer to any object. But with this freedom comes great responsibility. I must provide my hearers with enough cues to enable them to associate my use of ‘this’ with the same object I do, or communication will fail. Sometimes this doesn’t require anything extra, because it is mutually known that one object is salient, so that it will be assumed to be the referent in the absence of cues to the contrary. Other times it requires pointing. And in some cases simply pointing isn’t enough. But in every case, we’re obliged to do whatever is required to get our hearers to associate the same object with the demonstrative that we do. If we fail to do this, it will be sheer luck if they understand us.

In my book, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies I pointed out that productive discourse involves interaction at the overlap of the denotative and connotative aspects of a term or phrase:

Connotative-denotativeWhat MacFarlane is pointing out is something similar, but outside the realm of ambiguity. For something to be ambiguous, it cannot be merely vague — although right on the left-hand boundary of that overlap is where the most vague ambiguous terms and phrases reside.

Within that overlap resides the continuum of ambiguity:

Continuum of ambiguityIn other words, just as ‘dead metaphors’ are to the right of Productive Ambiguity and occur when there’s denotation but little connotation, so ‘vagueness’ lies to the left of Generative Ambiguity and, as MacFarlane would put it, happens due to semantic indecision.

The crux of MacFarlane’s position is that to have a meaningful interaction, two people have to agree where the ‘boundaries’ are to what they’re discussing:

Here is the upshot. While in using a bare demonstrative like ‘this,’ one must have a definite object in mind, and successful uptake requires recognizing what object that is, there are no analoguous requirements for the use of ‘large.’ The speaker need not have in mind a particular delineation (even a ‘fuzzy’ one), and the hearer need not associate the speaker’s use with a particular delineation. What we get instead are constraints on delineations.  (p.11)

He continues, continuing his example of a trainee at an apple-sorting factory learning what a ‘large’ apple is:

Indecision is a practical state; it concerns plans and intentions, not belief. Just as one might plan to buy toothpaste, but not yet have settled on which toothpaste one will choose when confronted with a rack of them at the store, so one might have settled on counting apples greater than 84mm in diameter as large, without having settled on whether one would count a 78mm apple as large.

So for an interlocutor or reader to consider something ‘ambiguous’ they must ‘tolerate’ the semantic decisions made by the person with whom they’re interacting. If they don’t, then the lack delineation leads to vagueness.

I suggest, then, the ‘tolerance’ intuition can be explained as an awareness that a proposal to draw a sharp line in any particular place would be rejected for pragmatic reasons. Nothing about the meanings of vague words is inconsistent with drawing a sharp boundary; it’s just tha the cases in which a proposal to draw a sharp boundary would be sensible are few and unusual.

In other words, we humans are pretty good at getting by using heuristics. We agree to suspend disbelief (and therefore enter the continuum of ambiguity) to see whether doing so is, to use the words of William James ‘good in the way of belief’.


On vagueness, or, when is a heap of sand not a heap of sand?

Nothing new here for anyone who’s studied Philosophy, but still worth sharing for a general audience:

A vague word such as ‘heap’ is used so loosely that any attempt to locate its exact boundaries has nothing solid and reliable to go on. Although language is a human construct, that does not make it transparent to us. Like the children we make, the meanings we make can have secrets from us. Fortunately, not everything is secret from us. Often, we know there’s a heap; often, we know there isn’t one. Sometimes, we don’t know whether there is one or not. Nobody ever gave us the right to know everything!

Vagueness is an annoying, elusive concept — unlike ambiguity, which can be a much more productive one.