Definition of Aposiopesis

Aposiopesis is the rhetorical device of breaking off in the middle of speech. The sentence or thought is unfinished and the end left to the imagination of the interlocutor or audience. This can signify a speaker’s unwillingness or inability to continue for any number of reasons. Usually these reasons have to do with an extreme emotion interfering with continuous thought processes, such as fear, anger, joy, etc. Aposiopesis can also signal modest, an epiphany, or when the speaker means to be suggestive to his or her interlocutor. Sometimes the silence that ensues from an aposiopesis example is called a “pregnant pause.”

The word aposiopesis comes from the Greek word ἀποσιώπησις (aposiopesis), in which it means “becoming silent.”

Difference Between Aposiopesis, Apostrophe, and Ellipsis

The definition of aposiopesis is very similar to the definition of apostrophe. Apostrophe, when referring to the figure of speech rather than the punctuation mark, also means breaking off in the middle of speech. However, apostrophe is used to break away from one person to address another. This could be breaking away from addressing the audience in a play to address a third person, either absent or present or even an object or intangible concept. When using the device of aposiopesis, however, a sentence that is interrupted is never finished, and the speaker simply stops speaking.

The punctuation mark of an ellipsis is sometimes used to signal an example of aposiopesis (em dashes are also commonly used for this purpose). There is also a linguistic device called ellipsis that refers to the omission of words that are unnecessary and would be redundant. Speakers might choose to use ellipsis for purposes of hesitation, confusion, or as a sort of euphemism in which they don’t want to say a word considered offensive. Aposiopesis has a different function. Aposiopesis always occurs midway through a sentence or thought that is left unfinished. It is not always the case that the end of the sentence is mutually understood, unlike in examples of ellipsis.

Common Examples of Aposiopesis

There are many common phrases that we say in English which become aposiopesis examples. The following common beginnings of phrases are often left unfinished:

  • Don’t go there, or else…!
  • If only…
  • Why I oughta…
  • How could you…?

There are also many examples of aposiopesis in movies, television, and famous quotes. Here are some examples:

“This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world! Oh…! Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you…I can’t even talk to people….”

—Herbert Morrison reporting on the Hindenburg Disaster

Dr. Petrov: “This is most unnerving, Captain. The reason for having two missile keys is so that no one man may — ”
Captain Ramius: “May what?”

—The Hunt for Red October

Dr. House on television is also famous for his aposiopesis examples. In almost every episode he and his team struggle with correctly diagnosing a difficult case. And in almost every episode House is having a conversation with someone that has nothing to do with the case and he suddenly breaks off, clearly with an epiphany about the correct diagnosis.

Significance of Aposiopesis in Literature

Aposiopesis is used when speaking, and thus it’s most common to find aposiopesis examples in plays and in dialogue in novels. It’s also possible, however, to find examples of aposiopesis in a novel if the narrator is a character in the novel and feels a strong emotion about what he or she is describing and thus breaks off.

Examples of Aposiopesis in Literature

Example #1

31 And Moses returned unto the Lord and said, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold.
32 Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin — and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written!”
33 And the Lord said unto Moses, “Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.

(Exodus 32: 31-33, The King James Version)

There are many examples of aposiopesis in The Bible. In the above excerpt, Moses is asking for the Lord’s forgiveness for his people, who have made false idols. Moses begins his plea saying, “Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin” but is not sure how to finish this thought. Moses feels uncertain about what promises or guarantees he can make, and thus must discontinue his line of thinking.

Example #2

KING LEAR: If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

(King Lear by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare uses an example of aposiopesis in his tragedy King Lear. Lear is so overcome with anger when imagining his possible revenge that he cannot continue. He breaks off as he addresses his daughters Goneril and Regan in the line “That all the world shall–I will do such things,—.” Lear acknowledges that he does not yet know what revenge he will take, but that “they shall be / The terrors of the earth.”

Example #3

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

(Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)

Mark Twain includes an example of aposiopesis in his novel Adventures of Tom Sawyer when an old lady yells out “Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—.” This example shows how people use aposiopesis in normal interactions.

Example #4

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The final paragraph of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby contains an excellent aposiopesis example. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is commenting on Gatsby’s continued belief in the American Dream and that someday he will achieve it. Fitzgerald brilliantly trails off after “one fine morning” in order to demonstrate the hope that everything will come true and be fixed sometime in the hazy future, though the characters are unclear about how to attain that future.

Test Your Knowledge of Aposiopesis

1. Which of the following statements is the best aposiopesis definition?
A. The omission of words that would be redundant or otherwise unnecessary.
B. A sentence or thought broken off in the middle and left unfinished.
C. Breaking off from addressing one person in order to address another.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is the definition of ellipsis and C is the definition of apostrophe.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following common phrases in English is an example of aposiopesis?
A. He’ll get what’s coming to him.
B. If only we could try again.
C. Don’t test me, or I’ll, I’ll—
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This is the only sentence of the three examples left unfinished.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the final stanza of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Is this an example of aposiopesis? Why or why not?
A. No. Though Frost uses an em dash and seems to pause, he ends up finishing the thought.
B. Yes. Frost breaks off one sentence in order to address an intangible concept.
C. Yes. Frost leaves out unnecessary words.
D. No. Frost repeats the word “I” with no rhetorical effect.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]