Aposiopesis

An Introduction to Aposiopesis

Aposiopesis (derives from the Greek word aposiōpēsis, literally means “to become silent”), is a rhetorical term which is used to denote a situation whereby a speaker breaks off suddenly in mid-sentence, while speaking, and consequently leaving the sentence unfinished; usually with the excuse of being overcome with emotion.

Aposiopesis may be committed when a speaker suddenly stops in the middle of speaking, as if saying more would seem superfluous, or as if words fail one, or as if the listener or reader would now be able to complete the sentence suitably. This usually occur in the moments of emotion as it signals the speaker’s tone and mood at the time.

Triggering Agents of Aposiopesis (with Examples)

Aposiopesis generally occur by reason of three triggers:

A.  Loss of Words — This is a common trigger of aposiopesis whereby the speaker may struggle for the right word to say, ending up unsuccessful. As a result, the speaker leaves the word unsaid. In such context, the audience may imaginary figure out what is left unsaid.

Examples include:
  • “No, you unnatural hags,
    I will have such revenges on you both
    That all the world shall – I will do such things…,
    What they are, yet know not; but they shall
    Be the terrors of the earth.”
  • King Lear, 2,4
  • “If only I knew who killed that cherry tree,” he cried, “I would … yes, I would …”
  • Anonymous
  • “I have always been my own master; had at least
    always been so, till I met Dorian Gray. Then – but
    I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
  • Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

B.  Handicapped by Emotions: This is another usual trigger of aposiopesis as the speaker suddenly stops halfway in a sentence due to overwhelmness of emotion (fear, excitement or anger). In either case the speaker is unable to articulate further leaving his/her thoughts to the listener or audience with a vague hint of an idea.

Examples include:
  • “Bear with me,
    My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
    And I must pause till it come back to me.”
  • Julius Caesar, 3,2
  • “In such a night
    To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
    In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!”
  • King Lear, 3, 4
  • “Damn it all, man! I know my own mind and what’s best!”
    “I’m agreeing, with you, only ….”
    “only what?” Scott snapped out.
    “only …”
    the dog-musher began softly, then changed his mind and betrayed a rising anger of his own.
    “Well, you need’nt get so all-fired het up about it. Judging by your actions one’d think you didn’t know your own mind.”
  • (Jack London).

    In this example (3), the dog-musher stopped twice at the word “only,” the first time being interrupted and the second time being due to his sudden change of mind. We can assume that the dog-musher initially intended to give Scott some advice but he was annoyed by Scott’s rude manner. He did not speak it out though, leaving Scott in the dark about what he meant.

C.  A Kind Of Narrative Technique — Aposiopesis may be instrumental in narrating sequential episodes of events adding suspense to the listener’s imagination while achieving that, as the listener is engrossed while guessing the next sequence of events.

Examples include:
  • “It is the most astonishing coincidence that ever …
    But wait. I will tell you the former instance, and then
    You will see it for yourself.”
  • Mark Twain, Mistaken Identity
  • “This daughter, Juana, was – But stop – let her open
    the door of the saloon in which the Senora and the cornet are conversing, and speak for herself.”
  • Theomas De Quincey, The Spanish Nun
  • “Molly had too much spirit to bear this treatment tamely. Having therefore – but hold,
    as we are diffident of our own abilities,
    let us here invite a superior power to our assistance.”
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
Important Hint! 

Aposipesis is a rhetorical term whereby a sentence is deliberately broken off and left unfinished by the speaker, giving an impression of unwillingness or inability to continue. However, the ending is expected to be supplied by the imagination of the audience.

This device often portrays its users of being overwhelmed with emotion (fear, anger, excitement) or modesty. In signifying the occurrence of Aposiopesis, the punctuation mark “dash” or “ellipsis” (as it’s called) may be used.

Further Readings:
American Rhetoric | AssonanceOpens in new window
Xiuguo Zhang | English Rhetoric;
Gregory T. Howard | Dictionary of Rhetorical Terms.