This means that some have more importance than others in a sentence. Or, more simply, hypotaxis is a way of describing how some sentences have less important, or subordinate, clauses that just add to the main clause (rather than carrying their own importance). This occurs in more complex sentences. The subordinate clauses are not independent. They need the main clause to make sense and give them purpose.
Definition of Hypotaxis
Hypotaxis is a complex way of describing the grammatical structure of complex sentences. It refers to those in which readers can find a central, main clause that’s of more importance and less important, subordinate clauses that add to the main clauses. They provide the information needed to clarify the main clause of the sentence.
Hypotaxis comes from the Greek meaning “beneath” and “arrangement.”
Examples of Hypotaxis in Literature
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of Keats’s most famous poems. It was written in 1819 and was inspired by Keats’s experience with a sorrowful-sounding nightingale bird. In one particular passage, Keats’s speaker is thinking about a “draught of vintage.” This main clause is followed by several subordinate clauses that add detail.
[…] that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
It’s important that the reader receive these extra pieces of information so they can clearly visualize what the speaker is thinking. They also serve as a very good example of imagery. While the subordinate lines are interesting and important for the poem’s overall atmosphere, they wouldn’t make any sense without the initial statement about wanting a “draught of vintage.”
Read more John Keats’s poems.
If— by Rudyard Kipling
In this famously inspirational poem, the poet brings together many different causes to define what it takes to live a good life. The poem provides advice on how one should live one’s life. It the reader through various ways in which they can rise above adversity and maintain their moral compass. The most important clause comes at the end of the poem, in the second to last line. It reads: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” Another important clause follows it, “you’ll be a Man, my son!” These statements are expanded upon in all the previous stanzas. Some examples of subordinate clauses from earlier on in the poem include:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on where there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
As well as:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
In these stanzas, the poet is working their way up to the final main clauses. If one can do all the things he’s mentioning, then they’ll “be a Man” and have the “Earth” at their feet.
Explore more Rudyard Kipling poems.
Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
In this well-loved and deeply meaningful poem, Angelou’s speaker describes two different birds and the lives they lead. One is stuck in a cage and unable to step out into his life, while another is “free” and soars above the world. The following lines are a great example of how a poet can present one clause and then add onto it with subordinate clauses that give it more detail.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Angelou starts with “The caged bird sings” as the main clauses and then adds onto that statement. She says that it sings “with a fearful trill” and “of things unknown.” These lines are important for a reader’s understanding of what the bird is experiencing but, without the main clause “The caged bird sings,” they wouldn’t make any sense.
Discover Maya Angelou’s poetry.
Hypotaxis and Parataxis
Hypoyaxis and parataxis are important to understand together because they are exact opposites. Parataxis refers to sentences in which all the clauses are of equal importance. There are no subordinate or secondary clauses. For example, the famous line “I can, I saw, I conquered.” Each part of this sentence carries the same emphasis and importance. This type of sentence is also sometimes referred to as “not coordinated.” In parataxis, writers omit conjunctions. (A technique that’s also known as asyndeton.) These sentences sometimes use semicolons, or as in the example above, commas, to separate the independent clauses.
In contrast, hypotaxis refers to the use of main and subordinate clauses in a sentence, and it uses conjunctions to connect them.
Why Do Writers Use Hypotaxis?
Writers use hypotaxis when they want to craft complex sentences that are made up of subordinate and main clauses. These sentences can sometimes convey more information than others and help readers connect that information together. They are sometimes more logical and convey temporal relationships within the sentences themselves. More than not, sentences that are part of arguments and persuasive essays use this kind of sentence.
Related Literary Terms
- Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
- Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
- Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or a phrase at the end of multiple clauses or sentences.
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Antimetabole: the repetition of the same words, in reverse, in successive clauses.
- Read: Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
- Read: Merriam-Webster Definition of Parataxis
- Watch: Hypotaxis and Parataxis