Aposiopesis is defined as a figure of speech in which the writer stops a line of text in the middle of a sentence. This sentence is left incomplete, breaking off into silence. A writer does this intentionally in order to create some kind of effect on the writing and the reader. Examples include a speaker being distracted, overcome with an emotion such as passion or dread, or forgetting the words they were about to say. The technique is often used to allude to something darker, like death or disappearance.
When a sentence is left unfinished it is up to the reader to determine what happened and what is going to happen next. This means that examples of aposiopesis are often subjective, with multiple possible interpretations. One reader might interpret a line break as something dramatic and exciting, alluding to pleasant possibilities in the world of the characters. While another might see it as foreshadowing something terrible.
When using this technique a writer might employ an em-dash “—“ or an ellipsis “…”
Types of Aposiopesis
- Emotive aposiopesis: This first kind of aposiopesis is used when there is a conflict or difference between the emotional state of the speaker and their environment. The environment is unsuited to the emotion and does not react to the speaker. The pause is usually in the middle of a sentence.
- Emphatic aposiopesis: This is a kind of aposiopesis that is quite common in poetry and prose. It removes part of a sentence in order to express the inexpressible. A speaker might stop talking because they really don’t know how to say what they want.
- Calculated aposiopesis: In these examples were is a conflict between what is said and a force that rejects what is being said. The content is removed due to an outside force acting on the speaker.
- Audience-respecting aposiopesis: This occurs when thoughts or words are removed for the sake of the audience. They might be offensive in some way. A dash or silence will stand in for them.
- Transitio-aposiopesis: With this kind of aposiopesis an idea is removed from the end of a sentence or phrase in order to encourage one to continue reading or listening. It alludes to something else that might be revealed.
History of Aposiopesis
The word “Aposiopesis” is derived from a Greek word meaning “becoming silent”. There are examples of this technique reaching back to Virgil and the Bible. Take for example this passage from the Bible. It comes from Psalm 27, verse 13. It reads: “Unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living …” While reading this, one can’t help but fill in what they think is going to come next. The speaker meant this to be the case and he could not put into words what he would’ve done in this situation.
Examples of Aposiopesis in Literature
Example #1 King Lear by William Shakespeare
Take these lines from King Lear, Act II, Scene iv as an example.
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 I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Here, the speaker, King Lear, is addressing Regan, speaking about his own daughters. The dashes interrupt his words as he contemplates what he would do to them. There are “such things” that he hasn’t even thought of yet.
Example #2 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the most famous passages from this classic novel comes from the end of the book:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
These emotional lines come from the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway. He comments on Gatsby’s mental state and his intention of reaching into the future and achieving his dreams. The ellipsis at the end of “one fine morning” is powerful. It leads the reader into the final line of the book. This breaking of speech represents the speaker’s hope that hope is real and that what they are all searching for will reveal itself.