Definition of Parataxis

Parataxis is a literary device in which there is a juxtaposition of short, simple, independent clauses without subordinating conjunctions. Parataxis examples sometimes include no conjunctions at all, though there can be coordinating conjunctions such as “but,” “and,” “for,” “yet,” “so,” “or,” and so on. Parataxis examples never include linking words such as “while,” “that,” “until,” and so on (i.e., subordinating conjunctions). The difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions is a matter of dependence; coordinating conjunctions can join two or more independent ideas, whereas subordinating conjunctions show that one part is reliant on another for meaning.

There is a second definition of parataxis which applies to literature. Parataxis can also mean a poetic technique of placing two starkly dissimilar images or fragments side by side in a poem. The contrast forces readers to make connections between these dissimilar things. Some poetic forms, such as the haiku, make use of this technique so as to provide a turn and surprise for the reader.

The word parataxis comes from the Greek for “the act of placing side by side” from the words para-, “beside” and tassein, “to arrange.”

Difference Between Parataxis and Asyndeton

Parataxis and asyndeton are very similar literary techniques. Asyndeton is the omission of all conjunctions between successive clauses. In fact, asyndeton, can be considered a subset of parataxis in that all examples of asyndeton are also examples of parataxis. The reverse statement, however, is not true because some parataxis examples do use coordinating conjunctions.

Common Examples of Parataxis

Parataxis can be found in some advertising slogans, as brands and companies usually favor brevity and easy to remember tag lines. Here are some examples:

  • “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”—M&Ms
  • “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.”—Maybelline
  • “Nothing outlasts the Energizer. It keeps going and going and going.”—Energizer batteries
  • “Pork. The Other White Meat.”—National Pork Board
  • “Thousands of possibilities. Get yours.”—Best Buy

One good example of parataxis outside the literary realm is the contemporary art form of music videos. Many times there are images which are placed one after the other that require the viewer to make connections that are not necessarily obvious.

Significance of Parataxis in Literature

Though clauses and sentences in an example of parataxis are independent, the function of parataxis is to allow the reader or listener to imagine the train of thought that leads from one idea to the next. Parataxis examples do not show these connections in full, but instead rely on the intelligence of the reader to fill in the gaps, so to speak. Thus, parataxis is quite different from a non sequitur, where there is not any connection from one idea to the next.

Examples of Parataxis in Literature

Example #1

‘Come along, then,’ said he of the green coat, lugging Mr. Pickwick after him by main force, and talking the whole way. Here, No. 924, take your fare, and take yourself off—respectable gentleman—know him well—none of your nonsense—this way, sir—where’s your friends?—all a mistake, I see—never mind—accidents will happen—best regulated families—never say die—down upon your luck—Pull him UP—Put that in his pipe—like the flavour—damned rascals.’ And with a lengthened string of similar broken sentences, delivered with extraordinary volubility, the stranger led the way to the traveller’s waiting-room, whither he was closely followed by Mr. Pickwick and his disciples.

(The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens)

The above excerpt from Charles Dickens’s work The Pickwick Papers is a famous example of parataxis which calls attention to its own technique. The stranger speaks in “a lengthened string of similar broken sentences,” as Dickens says. As the reader, we can see the connection and train of thought from one idea to the next, and yet there are not conjunctions in place to connect the ideas.

Example #2

‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
‘It’s pretty hot,’ the man said.
‘Let’s drink beer.’
‘Dos cervezas,’ the man said into the curtain.
‘Big ones?’ a woman asked from the doorway.
‘Yes. Two big ones.’

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway is known for his concise style and his tendency to eschew subordinating conjunctions. He describes as little as he can get away with, and the dialogue between his characters is often filled with subtext and nuance. In the above excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway uses only one conjunction altogether (“and” in the first line), and mostly writes in short, declarative sentences.

Example #3

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughters Denver were its only victims.

(Beloved by Toni Morrison)

The contemporary writer Toni Morrison often writes in a paratactic style (i.e., one that exemplifies parataxis), choosing short sentences and combining successive clauses only with coordinating conjunctions, or with punctuation and no conjunction at all. The above few lines are famous for opening Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved. The surprising short sentences “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” make the reader wonder what, exactly, 124 is, and how it could be spiteful. Morrison’s concise style builds intrigue in the reader.

Example #4

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.

(Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler)

The short excerpt above from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent parataxis example. The first sentence connects independent clauses only with sentences, while the second contains exactly one coordinating conjunction. The first sentence also is an example of anaphora, which is a form of repetition in which successive clauses begin with the same word or words. Chandler does a good job of intimating the connections between his character’s different “needs” and then contrasting them with what the character does actually have.

Example #5

In the summer quiet. Just be. Joshua liked the Beatles, used to listen to them in his room, you could hear the noise even through the big headphones he loved. Let it be. Silly song, really. You let it be, it returns. There’s the truth. You let it be, it drags you to the ground. You let it be, it crawls up your walls.

(Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann)

Contemporary author Colum McCann is noted for his style of writing without many conjunctions, and often even without full sentences. The above paragraph from McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin riffs on the famous Beatles imperative “Let it be.” McCann’s incomplete sentences do away with unnecessary words and leave the reader to imagine and create connections where McCann has enigmatically left them out.

Test Your Knowledge of Parataxis

1. Which of the following statements is not a parataxis definition?
A. The use of short sentences without subordinating conjunctions.
B. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in a poem.
C. The construction of a sentence with no coordinating conjunctions.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following quotes from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is NOT a parataxis example?
A. To be, or not to be? That is the question— / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
B. To die, to sleep— / No more—
C. Ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer because it contains the subordinating clause “whether.” [/spoiler]

3. Which of the following excerpts from Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin is NOT an example of parataxis?
A. The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.
B. There was something of the beautiful failure about her.
C. He didn’t like it all that much when he first came – all the rubbish and the rush – but it was growing on him, it wasn’t half bad. Coming to the city was like entering a tunnel, he said, and finding to your surprise that the light at the end didn’t matter; sometimes in fact the tunnel made the light tolerable.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A and C are both parataxis examples for different reasons; A because there are no conjunctions and C because there are only coordinating conjunctions such as “but” and “and.”[/spoiler]