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An anacoluthon (// AN-ə-kə-LOO-thon; from the Greek, anakolouthon, from an-: 'not' + akolouthos: 'following') is an unexpected shift in meaning within a sentence, leading to a form of words in which there is logical incoherence of ideas. Anacolutha are often sentences interrupted midway, where there is a change in the syntactical structure of the sentence and of intended meaning following the interruption. An example is the Italian proverb "The good stuff – think about it." This proverb urges us to make the best choice. When anacoluthon occurs unintentionally it is considered to be an error in sentence structure, and results in incoherent nonsense. However, it can be used as a rhetorical technique to challenge the reader to think more deeply, or in "stream of consciousness" literature to represent the disjointed nature of associative thought. Anacoluthon is very common in informal speech, where a speaker might start to say one thing, then break off and abruptly and incoherently continue, expressing a completely different line of thought. When such speech is reported in writing, a dash is often included at the point of discontinuity. The listener is expected to ignore the first part of the sentence, although in some cases it might contribute to the overall meaning in an impressionistic sense.
- Had ye been there – for what could that have done? (John Milton in Lycidas)
- "Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
- That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
- Let him depart."
Additionally, Conrad Aiken's Rimbaud and Verlaine has an extended anacoluthon as it discusses anacoluthon:
- "Discussing, between moves, iamb and spondee
- Anacoluthon and the open vowel
- God the great peacock with his angel peacocks
- And his dependent peacocks the bright stars..."
Due to a poor cut-and-paste job of a new title on to the original, the film Attack of the Eye Creatures (originally just The Eye Creatures) appears to be Attack of the The Eye Creatures. When the film was shown on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel identifies the mistake as an anacoluthon.
The word anacoluthon is a transliteration of the Greek ἀνακόλουθον (anakólouthon), which derives from the privative prefix ἀν- (an-) and the root adjective ἀκόλουθος (akólouthos), "following". This, incidentally, is precisely the meaning of the Latin phrase non sequitur in logic. However, in Classical rhetoric anacoluthon was used both for the logical error of non sequitur and for the syntactic effect or error of changing an expected following or completion to a new or improper one.
Use of the term
The term "anacoluthon" is used primarily within an academic context. It is most likely to appear in a study of rhetoric or poetry. For example The King's English, an English style guide written by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler mentions it as a major grammatical mistake.
"We can hardly conclude even so desultory a survey of grammatical misdemeanours as this has been without mentioning the most notorious of all. The anacoluthon is a failure to follow on, an unconscious departure from the grammatical scheme with which a sentence was started, the getting switched off, imperceptibly to the writer, very noticeably to his readers, from one syntax track to another."
The term does occasionally appear in popular media as well. The word, though not the underlying meaning (see malapropism), has been popularized, due to its use as an imprecation by Captain Haddock in the English translations of The Adventures of Tintin series of books.
- Aiken, Conrad. Selected Poems. London: OUP, 2003. 141.
- Brown, Huntington and Albert W. Halsall. "Anacoluthon" in Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 67-8.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 671–673. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
- "Anacoluthon - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-05-20.
- Alla buona derrata, pensaci su, from Mawr, E.B. (1885). Analogous Proverbs in Ten Languages. p. 116.
- Gowers, E. (1973). The Complete Plain Words. p. 182.