Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Innovative Strategist & Digital Expert

Dave Barry: Master of Paraprosdokian

Dave Barry: This is the look of a humor columnist.If you’re not already a fan of Dave Barry, just stop. Whatever it is you’re doing can wait. Dave Barry cannot.

Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist formerly with the Miami Herald. Though semi-retired, you’ll have years of entertainment with his archive of columns—not to mention his books.

Barry also writes an annual “Year in Review.” It’s a hysterical and poignant look at recent history. What makes it particularly enjoyable is Barry’s unique use of paraprosdokian, the “Jack Handey” figure of speech where you subvert the audience’s expectations from the beginning of a sentence to the end. One gem:

“In legal affairs, the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, eliciting high praise from many politicians who enacted the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Just a snippet of the greatness that is Dave Barry. The review is well worth your time. And by studying his technique, you’ll become a better rhetor. Happy persuading in the New Year!

[Figure Friday] Paraprosdokian: The Jack Handey Figure

Paraprosdokian (pair-uh-pros-DOH-key-an) [trope] – A sentence or phrase where the latter part causes the audience to rethink the former part.

Master the paraprosdokian figure and you’re well on your way to a career in comedy—as many jokes rely on this mostly-hilarious trope:

“If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.”
– Homer Simpson

The power of this figure come from the unusual dis/connection between the two parts of the sentence. The more unusual (but clever) the dis/connect, the more effective the paraprosdokian will be:

“Let me know if you need help fixing that grill, so I can call someone.”
– Me (at a BBQ last weekend)

For readers old enough to remember, this is the figure that made “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” famous:

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.”
– Jack Handey

But it’s not all fun and games with the paraprosdokian. If you’re careful about the dis/connect, meaning it’s particularly clever, you can create a powerful figure for serious topics (especially if you like Eastern philosophy):

Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.

Happiness is persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I’ll take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]