Polysyndeton

Breaking Down Polysyndeton

Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton: The repeated use of conjunctions than necessary between all elements enumerated in a series.

Polysyndeton (derives from the Ancient Greek πολύ (poly), meaning “many,” and συνδετόν (syndeton), meaning “bound together with”), is a rhetorical term for the repeated use of conjunctions than necessary between all elements enumerated in a series.

Contrary to the effect of its opposite ‘asyndetonOpens in new window’; Polysyndeton tends to separate the elements, to make each one singly and important, and in some cases, slows the pace of the utterance. This mechanism tends to add a kind of solemnity, and rhetorical effect whereby the listed elements are individually emphasized by the generous use of conjunctions to separate each.

Polysyndeton may also be considered a deviation from the conventional rule of the coordinating conjunction ‘and’, which states that ‘and’ as a coordinating conjunction should only be inserted between the two final elements in an enumeration of words or phrases.

Polysyndeton means that there is a coordinating conjunction between every element, not merely between the two final ones, as thus: ‘I came and I saw and I conquered’

Features of Polysyndeton

  1. Polysyndeton may be used in achieving a rhythmic effect. A and B and C and D may produce regular and useful cadence where A, B, C, and D had none to speak of.
  2. Polysyndeton tends to regulate the pace of an utterance; based on the context though, adding extra conjunctions between elements can slow a statement down by drawing out the process of saying it; and could as well speed up an utterance adding a level of urgency.
  3. In a typical polysyndetonic construction, the speaker uses coordinating conjunction “and” to connect listed items in a series, rather than separating them with commas. The result is to emphasize that each of the listed items are individually important
  4. Polysyndeton can create the impression that the speaker is making up the meaning as the utterance progresses. A normal list of items with commas between most of them and an “and” only before the last one requires the speaker to know when the list is coming to an end, since just before the end is the one and only place where the “and” goes. Putting an “and” after every item suggests that the speaker doesn’t have a plan of this kind; each item on the list might be the last or might not, depending on how many more things occur to the speaker. The resulting sound of artlessness may enhance the speaker’s credibility.

Ways of applying Polysyndeton

1.  Applying with Nouns

Examples include:
  • “Suppose a civil companion, or a led captain, should,
    Instead of virtue, and honour, and beauty, and parts,
    And admiration, thunder vice, and infamy, and ugliness,
    And folly, and contempt, in his patron’s ears.
  • — Fielding, Joseph Andrews (1742)

  • “Thus, then, though Time be the mightiest of Alarics, yet is he the mightiest mason of all. And a tutor, anda counselor, and a physician, and a scribe, and a poet, and a sage, and a king.
  • — Melville, Mardi (1849)

2.  Applying with Verbs — Conjunctions may be used to connect verbs or verb phrases – typically three of them – lending individual importance to each and creating a heightened sense of activity.

Examples include:
  • “We talked about the position of men of letters in England, and they said that the aristocracy hated and despised and feared them…”
  • — Hawthorne, English Note-books (1856)

  • “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”
  • Genesis 7:22–24

  • “They niggled and quibbled and bargained until the State was left as a curious hybrid thing such as the world has never seen.”
  • —Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War (1900)

  • “We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by our fathers who framed the Government under which we live; while you with one accord reject and scout and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.”
  • — Lincoln, speech at Cooper Institute (1860)

3.  Applications to modifiers — Setting off every modifier with its own conjunction gives an extra push to each of them, and may also add an air of exasperation to their recital:

Examples include:
  • “It is weak, and contemptible, and unworthy, in a parent to relax in such a case. It is sacrificing general advantage to private feelings.”
  • — Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)

  • “A German daily is the slowest and saddest and dreariest of the inventions of man.”
  • — Twain, A Tramp Abroad (1880)

  • “You will find every question which he has asked me more fairly and boldly and fully answered than he has answered those which I put to him”
  • — Lincoln, debate with Stephen Douglas at Freeport (1858)

  • “Men, she perceives, are clumsy, and talk loud, and have no drawing-room accomplishments, and are rude; and she proceeds to model herself on them.”
  • — Beerbohm, The Decline of the Graces (1909)

4.  Often applied in Narratives — Polysyndeton is an important device used in achieving stylish motion in narrative articles.

Examples include:
  • “He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows and found that everything could yield him pleasure.”
  • — Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

  • “I fumed and sweated and charged and ranted till I was hoarse and sick and frantic and furious; but I never moved him once – I never started a smile or a tear!”
  • — Twain, How the Author Was Sold in Newark (1869)
Notable Examples in Literature
  • “When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too”
  • King Lear (5.3.11–5).

  • “Why, this is not a boon! 'Tis as I should entreat you to wear your gloves, or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm, or sue you to do a peculiar profit to your person”
  • Othello (3.3.85–9).

  • “Your love says, like an honest gentleman, and a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and, I warrant, a virtuous-where is your mother?”
  • Romeo and Juliet (2.5.59–61)
Further Readings:
Wikipedia Polysyndeton Opens in new window
Ward Farnsworth; Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric: Using Extra Conjunctions: Polysyndeton Opens in new window
Jon Helgason; Women's Language: An Analysis of Style and Expression in Letters Opens in new window