A polysyndeton creates lists of equal importance. A writer might use this technique when they want to link together similar words for emphasis. It’s most commonly used in plays, poems, and novels. It’s not a technique one would expect to see in an academic paper or formal address.
Definition of Polysyndeton
Using polysyndeton can significantly slow down the pace of a particular piece of writing. It puts added emphasis on each word, making sure readers don’t miss anything. While, at the same time, ensuring that all the words are considered together. It can also make the reader feel overwhelmed with so many words or phrases to read at the same time. One of the most common uses of this figure of speech is when a writer wants to mimic natural speech patterns. It’s common for everyday people not to speak grammatically. Polysyndeton is a way of tapping into that. While the most obvious examples of polysyndeton are in single sentences, it can appear in multiple sentences that fall one after another. For example, several sentences, each of which begins with “And.”
Examples of Polysyndeton in Literature
Othello by William Shakespeare
Othello, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, follows the downfall of Othello, the perfect tragic hero. Iago, the antagonist of the play, slowly convinces him that his wife, Desdemona,, is cheating on him. There is a brief but effective example of polysyndeton in Act III Scene 3. Othello is talking about Desdemona and suggesting that he thinks she’s faithful, but, at the same time, he thinks she isn’t. He also goes back and forth about how he feels about Iago. Previously her reputation was pure. Now it’s sullied. He follows this up with this line:
If there be cords or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I’ll not endure it.
These words are linked by the conjunction “or,” connecting them in a powerful way. He’s suggesting that as long as there are weapons to injure other people and oneself with then, he doesn’t need to sit around feeling so torn. He’ll “not endure it.” This is a haunting line that foreshadows what’s going to happen next.
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The Holy Bible, Joshua 7:24
In this section of the Bible written by the Prophet Joshua, the following quote appears:
And Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had.
Here, the writer uses “and” twelve times in one sentence. Rather than starting a new sentence, these phrases are linked together. They help convey the entire scene at once rather than breaking it down into parts.
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Dombey and Son is a less-commonly read novel by Charles Dickens. It chronicles the life of a shipping firm owner and the fact that he doesn’t have a son to take over his business. Dickens is a writer whose work is littered with wonderful examples of this technique. The following lines can be found in Chapter VI, “Paul’s Second Deprivation.”
The general belief was very slow. There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway.
In this one sentence, the writer uses “and” seven times, ensuring the reader can see the many different elements that compose one scene. In the sentence that follows, there is another example:
Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places.
Here, “of,” a less common example of polysyndeton is used. It appears three times, and “and” is used three times.
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Syndeton and Asyndeton
While these two words are also quite clearly connected, the former, syndeton, refers to sentences that are lined with a single conjunction. This is the normal way that conjunctions are used. Asyndeton occurs when a writer takes out conjunctions where they normally appear. It is the opposite of polysyndeton, in which the writer adds more conjunctions than needed.
Why Do Writers Use Polysyndeton?
Writers use this literary technique when they want to create a particularly powerful passage in their writing. There is no time for the reader to pause between thoughts or images. They fall one after another, ensuring that the reader is moved and easily able to see the entire scene the writer is trying to create. Polysyndeton is also helpful if a writer wants to put pauses into their work and create rhythm, sometimes speeding and sometimes slowing down passages. It should be noted that constant use of polysyndeton is likely to have the opposite effect. It is best used when used sparingly.
Related Literary Terms
- Asyndeton: a figure of speech that occurs when words like “and” and “or” (coordinating conjunctions) are removed from sentences.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
- Meiosis: a figure of speech that, when used, minimizes the importance of something. This is done through the use of a euphemism.
- Parataxis: a literary term used to describe the equal importance of a writer’s chosen words, phrases, or sentences.
- Metalepsis: a figure of speech that occurs when a writer uses a phrase or word in a new context. The chosen phrase or word comes from a different figure of speech.