Enumeration is a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items, events, ideas, or other parts of a story/setting.

E.g. At the store, I bought salt, pepper, flour, sugar, baking soda, and cinnamon.

An enumeration can be used to break down arguments, conflicts, and phrases. It is often used for listing details and to provide readers with more information about anything in the plot. This might be what a place looks like, how a character acts, what they feel, or anything else. By using enumeration, the author makes sure the reader won’t encounter ambiguity. It should be noted that sometimes enumeration is not the best possible choice for an author. There can be too much detail. 

Enumeration definition and examples

Enumeration  Definition

The word “enumeration” comes from the Latin meaning “counting up.” Enumeration is the technique in which a writer spends lines of poetry, paragraphs of prose, or other explaining parts of the plot. Often, it’s used to emphasize a certain situation or action. Or if a writer feels like they need to elucidate a particular portion of their story.

This is especially helpful if they feel as though they’re lacking details and don’t want to leave the reader in the dark. Sometimes ambiguity is helpful in moving a plotline forward. More often than not, though, it can deter a reader from progressing further into the novel, poem, or short story. 

Examples of Enumeration

I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King Jr. 

The “I have a dream” speech is one of the best-known and commonly quoted contemporary speeches. It is also a great example of enumeration.

When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’

These lines demonstrate how enumeration is used to expand on ideas. King brings together different groups, all to celebrate the idea of freedom. He lists out groups, “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,” and so on. Without commas and the natural inflections of speech, it would be hard to interpret. But, due to the speaker’s skill with language, that’s not an issue. 

Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation by Jonathan Swift 

Jonathan Swift, the famed satirist and author of works like Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” published “Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation” in the early 1700s. It depicts English discourse through Swift’s traditionally satirical lens. Swift discusses methods of discussion for the “common man” and “men of wit.” Here are a few lines from the book that demonstrate how Swift used enumeration in his writing: 

Among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promiseth to tell you when this is done; cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holding his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at length says, it is no matter, and so goes on.

The writer lists out the various ways the “sober deliberate talker” proceeds. He “maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions” and more. The passage concludes with the suggestion that this kind of person will cooly and collectedly brush off any stumbles. 

Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 

In this fiction example, Woolf uses her iconic stream-of-consciousness style to depict the setting and one character’s love of beauty. As is the case throughout her books, characters’ thoughts are presented without interruption. A thought ends in the same way and with the same suddenness as it would within one’s own mind. Here are a few lines from the novel that enumerate what it’s like when one takes the time to appreciate the simple beauty of everyday life: 

To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now[…]

Without using any end-stops, the writer takes the reader into this character’s thoughts, connecting them in one stream of thought and experience. Her lines mention the movements of birds, “swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them,” a perfect example of the device. Woolf also manages to enumerate what the setting is like and the emotional experience of viewing it through a particular lens. 

Why Do Writers Use Enumeration? 

Writers use enumeration when they want to dedicate a portion of their text to broadening the exposition in a short story, novel, or poem. It’s an important way of expanding the story, bringing the reader closer to the details, and fully explaining the fictional or non-fictional world. 

  • Accumulation: a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings.
  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
  • Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
  • Antithesis: occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve the desired outcome.

Other Resources 

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