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This is done in songs and I'm sure it's done in poetry too.

For example, in the song Gray and Blue by Jaymay, she sings, "I'm with another boy (he's asleep, I'm wide awake) / And he tried to win my heart, but it's taken... time." The pause leads you to believe her heart is taken (it is) but then she follows up and changes the meaning to be "it's takin' time".

This trick delights me but I don't know what it's called.

Also, sometimes further context doesn't change the meaning but the word is just perfectly ambiguous. An example of this is in The Park by Feist. "You thought that you saw him, but no you did not" The no could just as easily be "know." Does this have a name?

3 Answers 3

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Looks a bit like a Janus parallelism, a literary feature of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

In a Janus parallelism, "a middle stich of poetry contains a pun, which in one of its meanings parallels the line that precedes it and in another, parallels the line that follows". (https://faculty.washington.edu/snoegel/janusjob.html)

Here is an example for Janus parallelism:

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of zāmîr has come,
and the voice of the turtledove.

The Hebrew word zāmîr can mean either “pruning” or “song,” and in this context, it means “pruning” in relation to the first line and “song” in relation to the third line. (https://pressbooks.palni.org/elementsofbiblicalpoetry/chapter/5parallel-lines/)

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    you can improve this answer by incorporating a description or summary of janus parallelism rather than solely relying on the linked page. Link-only answers tend to be too vague, and get deleted by moderators
    – EDL
    Nov 19, 2023 at 13:28
  • Welcome to Writing.SE! Link-only answers are frowned upon here, as if the linked article ever changes or becomes unavailable, your answer will become useless. Would you mind editing this to include an explanation of what Janus Parallelism is, and how it matches the example lyrics in the question?
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 19, 2023 at 14:09
  • Janus Parallelism requires three lines, and the ambiguous word only appears in the middle one. While this technically matches the title, the body only has examples that don't match this at all.
    – Laurel
    Nov 19, 2023 at 14:20
  • Also, I don't recognize any puns in the examples given in the question, so the second of the requirements for a Janus Parallelism isn't met, either.
    – Ben
    Nov 19, 2023 at 14:39
  • I agree with this assessment that what I'm looking for is very similar to a Janus parallelism. Thank you for teaching me the concept. Perhaps "pun" is not the right word as neither my song example nor this bit in the Bible are funny, but I think this is a great analog if not exactly the same thing. Nov 20, 2023 at 18:19
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This is known as a garden path sentence.

a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or yields a clearly unintended meaning

For instance, "the old man the boat." The first reading would be to take the first three words as referring to a man who is old, not to old people who man what (in the end) is proven to be a boat.

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  • Thanks! This is similar and I was not familiar with this term. I think it might not be exactly what I was looking for though. The examples on the Wikipedia page are similar to puzzles that need to be parsed. I don't think they would work in songs. Also, not made explicit in my question, but I think both senses need to make sense on some level. Nov 20, 2023 at 18:23
  • Can it be both "clearly unintended" and "clearly intended" at the same time? ;-)
    – Stef
    Nov 20, 2023 at 19:24
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When an unexpected word comes and changes the meaning, I'd call it subversion. Which is a broader term that doesn't have to specifically refer to the ending of a sentence, but I think it applies here as well. You think you know where it's heading, or even where it has already arrived, and then bam, your expectation is subverted.

As for when the word is simply ambiguous, that's the term already - ambiguous. Sometimes also called a double entendre - but that term is so often used when the second meaning is something raunchy that people may be confused by its use (even if perfectly legitimate) when that isn't the case and both meanings are clean and innocent.

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