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Parataxis

Parataxis is a literary term used to describe the equal importance of a writer’s chosen words, phrases, or sentences.

Parataxis are set next to one another, and every element is weighted equally. The chosen sentences are usually short, to the point, and all necessary for the reader’s comprehension of a literary work. In some instances, the writer removes conjunctions. Such is the case with the famous quote “I came, I saw, I conquered” from Julius Caesar. But, the sentence would have the same meaning if he had included “and” between the phrases. 

Parataxis pronunciation: par-uh-tak-sis

Parataxis definition and examples

 

Definition of Parataxis

Parataxis comes from the Greek meaning “side by side arrangement.” It occurs when a writer puts elements together that are equally important. This could be a few words, sentences, or phrases. It occurs with or without conjunctions, but examples without conjunctions are often the most commonly cited. This is known as asyndetic parataxis. 

 

Examples of Parataxis in Literature 

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 

There are numerous examples of parataxis in Ernest Hemingway’s writing. He is known for this short, direct sentences and leaving much of the detail up to the reader to fill in. The Sun Also Rises is a particularly good example. It tells the story of American and British expatriates who travel to France to watch the running of the bulls. Here is a quote from the novel: 

The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. 

In this passage, the first sentence is a great example of parataxis. In it, readers can find four distinct phrases, each of which is as important as the one before it. They could be rearranged and read in a different order, and the entire sentence would still make sense. 

Read Ernest Hemingway’s poetry.

 

Bleak House by Charles Dickens 

Dickens’s Bleak House is one of his best-known and most commonly read novels. It tells the story of an incredibly long-lived court case and the interweaving lives of those involved in it. The novel starts with a chapter titled “In Chancery,” and it contains the following quote: 

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.

It’s clear in this passage how Dickens incorporated short sentences that are of equal importance to one another. While they can be rearranged, they are needed for the reader’s understanding of the scene. His style in this passage allows the reader to receive a great deal of information at once without navigating their way through complicated language. 

Explore Charles Dickens’s poetry. 

 

Continuities by Walt Whitman 

In this less-commonly read Whitman poem, the poet demonstrates how parataxis can be used in verse. Consider the following lines which start the poem: 

Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,

No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.

Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;

Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.

Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.

These lines are all around the same length. In them, the poet does use conjunctions, but they appear sparingly. They also fall one after another, helping the reader build a clear overall picture of what’s Whitman is talking about. 

Discover more Walt Whitman poems. 

 

Why Do Writers Use Parataxis? 

Writers use parataxis when they want to make a strong statement using several important sentences. Without adding unnecessary details, these passages can be quite effective and memorable. Such is certainly the case with the opening lines of ‘Continuities’ by Walt Whitman. Usually, the best writing is a combination of hypotaxis and parataxis (the former is described in more detail below). But, it will definitely depend on the writer’s style and their intention as to which type of sentences they’re interested in using. 

 

Parataxis and Hypotaxis

While these two words sound similar, they are actually exact opposites. It’s helpful to understand how one works in order to make sense of the other. Parataxis only occurs when all the elements of a sentence or phrase are of equal importance. Hypotaxis refers to the placement of functionally similar although unequal constructions. 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). 

Here is a good example of hypotaxis from Maya Angelou’sCaged Bird: 

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

In this excerpt, Angelou starts out by telling the reader that the “caged bird sings.” Everything that comes after in this stanza is not necessary for a reader’s basic understanding of what’s going on. The following lines depict the emotion of the song, but the reader already knows the bird is singing. 

 

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.

 

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