Anacoluthon is a literary device that occurs when the expected grammatical sequence of a sentence doesn’t occur. Instead, the grammatical flow is interrupted to start another sentence. It comes from the Greek word “anakolouthos,” meaning “lacking sequence.” This device can be used intentionally or unintentionally. The latter, when the writer makes a mistake in their sentence construction, and the former for stylistic reasons.
Definition and Explanation of Anacoluthon
In rhetoric, anacoluthon is known as a figure of disorder or one in which the expected syntax does not occur. It is similar, although not identical, to hyperbaton. Anacoluthon can occur within a sentence or in the form of tense. One sentence’s construction is interrupted to start a new sentence. When used purposefully, the technique helps to imitate the natural patterns of speech or thought. It is also employed to ensure that the most important information is at the beginning of the sentence. Although sometimes, this feature of the technique is overshadowed by the syntactic interest it provides.
Examples of Anacoluthon
Ulysses by James Joyce
In Ulysses, James Joyce uses something known as stream of consciousness numerous times throughout the novel. This related technique occurs when the writer allows a speaker’s words, the narration, or inner dialogue to flow as though the person’s thoughts are transcribed perfectly onto the page. This means readers hear doubts, halted sentences, malapropisms, etc. Here are a few lines that are suggestive of anacoluthon.
[…] I could do the criada the room looks all right since I changed it the other way you see something was telling me all the time I’d have to introduce myself not knowing me from Adam very funny wouldn’t it […]
Throughout these lines, the reader gets a real idea of what and how the speaker is thinking. It is far more convincing than what is generally considered to be standard syntax.
The Works of William Shakespeare
The works of William Shakespeare provide readers with a number of examples of anacoluthon. These can mainly be found when someone is trying to express something difficult, emotional, or complicated. It’s in these moments that it makes the most sense for sentences to interrupt one another, changing the feeling of the syntax.
Here are a few lines from King Lear that are an example of anacoluthon:
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
The sentence is clearly interrupted, with the example of a dash, allowing the actor to speak as they would naturally. This helps make the character seem more human and more relatable. Here are some lines from Hamlet that are also a good example of the technique:
To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to?
To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub?
These famous lines are spoken by Hamlet and are some of the best-known in the play. They clearly convey Hamlet’s fragmented state of mind. One more example from Shakespeare comes from Henry V. These lines are found in Act IV Scene 3.
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart.
The transitions from “stomach to this fight” and “let him depart” is an interesting one. It adds to the overall poetic feeling of the text as well as the drama of the moment.
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll
‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is a light-hearted and well-loved poem by Lewis Carroll. The poem is filled with interesting images and language, conveying Carroll’s love for nonsense language and personification. In the poem’s most famous passage, the walrus lists out “many things.” Here are the lines:
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
And cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.
He breaks into his own sentence, bringing in the list in the middle of the poem. Although some of these words don’t seem to go together, they do in Carroll’s work in which walruses can speak.
Why Do Writers Use Anacoluthon?
Writers make use of anacoluthon in order to create more realistic dialogue. The moments in which one sentence intrudes upon another mimics the natural progression of human thoughts. They are not linear, staying on track from one subject to the next. Instead, they skip around, interrupting one another. Such is the case with anacoluthon. The same can be said when the dialogue is spoken. This technique allows someone’s doubts, fears, or excitement to show through how the writer combines sentences.
It should be noted that this is one literary technique that can also be used unintentionally. Sometimes, either through inexperience or poor editing skills, anacoluthon can occur without a writer choosing to use it. This might be because someone lacks understanding of grammar rules or because they were hurrying through a section of text and missed it while editing their work. When it occurs unintentionally, the passages are hard to understand and not pleasurable to read.
Related Literary Terms
- Syncope: a literary device that involves the shortening of a word by removing or omitting letters.
- Colloquial Diction: is conversational in nature and can be seen through the use of informal words that represent a specific place or time.
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Bathos: a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.
- Metonymy: a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.
- Listen: How to Write an Anacoluthon
- Listen: Literary Terms in the English Language
- Read: Merriam Webster Dictionary Definition of Anacoluthon