Specifically, conjunctions are removed from sentences in which they would’ve connected two important phrases are clauses. It’s used intentionally to eliminate conjunctions but maintain the grammatical structure of a sentence. Writers use it to present a phrase in a more concise form and reduce the indirect meaning.
Definition of Asyndeton
Asyndeton comes from the Greek meaning “unconnected,” something that makes a great deal of sense when considering what asyndeton does to a sentence.
It figure of speech usually involves commas, but it can be used when a writer lists out short sentences. In another instance, asyndeton could be used in one part of a sentence in order to speed up the prose slightly, but not too much. The technique is commonly used in order to make a phrase sound more natural as well. By removing conjunctions, a writer may be able to create sentences that sound more like someone is actually speaking them. This is particularly helpful when writing dialogue around tense and dramatic moments.
Asyndeton is used in poetry, prose, drama, and speech writing. There are many interesting examples of the latter, including Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Here is a famous line from this speech as an example:
And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln does not use a conjunction, like “and” in-between the phrases “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This makes the lines far more impactful and fluid than if he’d interrupted each clause with “and.”
Asyndeton and Coordinating Conjunctions
It’s important to understand what coordinating conjunctions are if one is going to make sense of asyndeton and even use it in their own writing.
These conjunctions are those which create an equal relationship between two or more parts of a sentence. The parts are related to one another but are not dependent on one another. They include for, and, nor, or, yet, and so.
Types of Asyndeton
There are two types of asyndeton, and they can be separated accordingly:
- Used within sentences and clauses: this type of asyndeton occurs in-between words within a sentence. For example: “Are all your clothes, toys, games, luxuries worth nothing to you?”
- Used between sentences or clauses: this type of asyndeton occurs between separate sentences or between clauses. For example: “She ran. She jumped. She won.” Or “While thinking, imagining, and dreaming.”
Examples in Literature
Othello by William Shakespeare
In Act I Scene 1 of Othello, there is a good example of asyndeton when Iago is speaking to Roderigo. He says:
Call up her father.
Rouse him. Make after him, Poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets. Incense her kinsmen
In these lines, Iago uses asyndeton between sentences like “Rouse him” and “Make after him.” This adds an increased drama to his speech and also alludes to Iago’s dark and determined personality.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
The Winter’s Tale also provides readers with a good example of asyndeton. It can be found in the following lines from Act I Scene 2. The following passage is said by Lentos while speaking to Camillo.
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty!) horsing foot on foot?
In this excerpt, it’s possible to spot asyndeton being used in the middle of sentences and between them. For example, between “leaning” and “cheek” as well as between sentences like “is meeting noses?” And “Kissing with inside lip?”
Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s beloved is commonly considered to be a classic of the genre and one of the most important books of the 20th century. There is a well-known example from the novel found in the following quote:
Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.
In this line, Morrison removes the conjunction “and” that would usually be found between “definers” and “not.” By taking it away, she makes the phrase more succinct and more powerful. It’s also easier to remember. By moving between short lines, like the one above, and longer lines, Morrison is able to keep the reader’s attention and ensure that each line has as great an impact as possible.
Why Do Writers Use Asyndeton?
Writers use asyndeton for many different reasons.
It can help change the pace of a piece of text, put emphasis on a particular sentence, reduce a phrase to a more concise form, and make lines sound more natural. All of these reasons, and more, are why writers choose to remove conjunctions from their prose or verse. The figure of speech can also make lines sound more dramatic as if the speaker is building up to something.
Syndeton and Asyndeton
The difference between these two figures of speech is quite important to understand. The latter refers to the removal of conjunctions, while the former is the exact opposite.
Syndeton occurs when the writer includes more conjunctions. For example, “While thinking and imagining and dreaming.” Both create different kinds of effects within the writing and could be used at different times to ensure the reader doesn’t get too exhausted by the style.
Related Literary Terms
- Antanaclasis: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.
- Aphorismus: a figure of speech that occurs when a word’s use is called into question.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Figure of Speech: created when a writer uses figurative language or that which has another meaning other than its basic definition.
- Hyperbaton: a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.
- Read: The Gettysburg Address
- Listen: Polysyndeton and Asyndeton
- Watch: Top 20 Figures of Speech in the English Language