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What is Tmesis? Types, Rules and Examples

Tmesis is originally a Greek word, which means “to cut.” This rhetorical device involves breaking down a phrase or word into two parts with another word or phrase. A good example is "abso-freaking-lutely," or "Get the hell out." In this article, we examine the unique qualities of this rhetorical device, explaining how to use it and illustrating with examples.

Categories of tmesis

Tmesis has two categories. The first type of tmesis breaks phrasal verbs, as in "Turn the hell around." The second type breaks a WH question, as in "How the heck is that even possible," or the famous WTF question. The fourth category breaks a polysyllabic or compound word, as in "Where bloody ever he goes, I will find him." The last category refers to split infinitives. Here, an adverb occurs between "to" and an infinitive verb. For example, "To accurately score a point, you need to practice."

How to use tmesis effectively

In using tmesis, you can't simply insert a word anywhere between another word. There appear to be some rules to follow to apply tmesis effectively to create rhythm and emphasis. The inserted word is usually emphatic, like freaking, bloody and goddamn. For example, "inde-goddamn-pendent" is okay, but "in-goddamn-dependent" or "indepen-goddamn-dent" aren't.  

According to James Harbeck, you insert the emphatic addition before a stressed syllable, usually the syllable with the strongest stress and most often the last stressed syllable. 

Also, you should break the word or phrase according to the rhythm of the intensifier. Harbeck suggests that an expression like "To be or not to be" shouldn't be interrupted between iambs with a trochee as an intensifier. Hence "To be or not to freaking be," not "To be or not freaking to be." But if the intensifier is an iamb, then "To be or not the heck to be," not "To be or not to the heck be."

Examples of tmesis in writing

Tmesis appears more in everyday conversation, but they also feature in writing. And here are some interesting examples:

1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597). "This is not Romeo, he's some other where.

2. Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You, (1960). "It's a sort of long cocktail — he got the formula off a barman in Marrakesh or some-bloody-where."

3, John Donne, "Hymn to Christ, at the Author's Last Going Into Germany" (1896). "In what torn ship soever I embark, That ship shall be my emblem What sea soever swallow me, that flood shall be to me an emblem of thy blood."

4. John Jakes, The Americans (1980). "Gideon [Kent] knew [Joseph] Pulitzer, of course. He admired the publisher's insistence that his paper never become the captive of any group or political party. 'Indegoddamnpendent' was Pulitzer's unique way of putting it." 

5. Martin Brunt, "How Terror Has Changed the Crime Beat." (2007). "I did summon up the courage to poke a camera through Terry Adams's front gate last year, only to be met with a minder's greeting: 'Why don't you leave us a-f—ing-lone.' I wonder if the brute was aware of his use of tmesis, the insertion of one word into another?" 


Martin Brunt, "How Terror Has Changed the Crime Beat." The Guardian, Nov. 26, 2007.

John Jakes, The Americans. Nelson Doubleday, 1980.

Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You, 1960.

James Harbeck, "Why Linguists Freak Out About 'Absofreakinglutely.'" The Week, December 11, 2014.

Tmesis: Grammatical and Rhetorical Term,

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen