Polysyndeton is the use of several conjunctions in close succession, especially where some could otherwise be omitted (as in "he ran and jumped and laughed for joy"). The word polysyndeton comes from the Ancient Greek πολύ poly, meaning "many," and συνδετόν syndeton, meaning "bound together with". It is a stylistic scheme used to achieve a variety of effects: it can increase the rhythm of prose, speed or slow its pace, convey solemnity or even ecstasy and childlike exuberance. Another common use of polysyndeton is to create a sense of being overwhelmed, or in fact directly overwhelm the audience by using conjunctions, rather than commas, leaving little room for a reader to breathe.
In the King James Bible
Polysyndeton is used extensively in the King James Version of the Bible. For example:
- And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark. Genesis 7:22–24
- Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcass of an unclean beast, or a carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty. Leviticus 5:2.
- 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. Joshua 7.24.
Shakespeare is known for using various rhetorical devices in his works, including polysyndeton.
- "When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too" King Lear (5.3.11–5).
- "Why, this is not a boon! 'Tis as I should entreat you to wear your gloves, or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm, or sue you to do a peculiar profit to your person" Othello (3.3.85–9).
- "If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I'll not endure it" Othello (3.3.443–5).
- "Though his face be better than any man's, yet his leg excels all men's, and for a hand and a foot and a body, though they be not to be talked on, yet they are past compare" Romeo and Juliet (2.5.42–5).
- "Your love says, like an honest gentleman, and a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and, I warrant, a virtuous-where is your mother?" Romeo and Juliet (2.5.59–61)
Writers of modern times have also used the scheme:
- "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. 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." Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848
- "I said, 'Who killed him?' and he said 'I don't know who killed him, but he's dead all right,' and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water." Ernest Hemingway, After the Storm, 1933
- "Tender as my years may be," said Caspian, "I believe I understand the slave trade from within quite as well as your Sufficiency. And I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armour or anything else worth having." C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952 (Book 5 in The Chronicles of Narnia)
- "Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness." Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969
- The mouths of the cans were lensed with tinted cellophane and they cast upon the sheeting a shadowplay in the lights and smoke of antic demon players and a pair of goathawks arced chittering through the partial darkness overhead. Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, 1992.
- "And the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us. And the Germans will talk about us. And the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with." Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), Inglourious Basterds
- "But all you have to do is knock on any door and say, 'If you let me in, I'll live the way you want me to live, and I'll think the way you want me to think,' and all the blinds'll go up and all the windows will open, and you'll never be lonely, ever again." Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), Inherit the Wind
- "And St. Attila raised his hand grenade up on high saying 'O Lord bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy. 'and the Lord did grin and people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and...'" Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975
It can be contrasted with asyndeton, which is a coordination containing no conjunctions often manipulating the rhythm of a passage in the attempt to make a thought more memorable, and syndeton, which is a coordination with one conjunction.
Asyndeton examples include:
- "Veni, vidi, vici" (Julius Caesar)
- "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." (J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural)
Syndeton examples include:
- "I crawled back under the cover of the boat and huddled there, wet, cold and sobbing." Sam McKinney, Sailing Uphill. Touchwood, 2010
- "You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe". The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, 1939.
- Burton, Gideon. "Polysyndeton". Rhetoric.byu.edu. Silva Rhetoricae. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
- Corbett, Edward P.J., Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University, New York, 1971
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 682. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
- Bryant, Kenzie. "Polysyndeton". Prezi. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
- Gabriel, Jacob. "Asyndeton and Polysyndeton". Prezi. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
- Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1993, p 122.
- "A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples". Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures & Culture. University of Kentucky. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
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