Definition of Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton is a figure of speech in which several conjunctions are used to join connected clauses in places where they are not contextually necessary. For example, consider the following sentence: “The dinner was so good; I ate the chicken, and the salad, and the turkey, and the wild rice, and the bread, and the mashed potatoes, and the cranberry sauce.” In this sentence, the repetition of “and” is not necessary and could be omitted. However, the use of polysyndeton in this example adds a sense of the amazing abundance of the dinner and that the speaker could not stop from eating or describing all of these dishes.
The word “polysyndeton” comes from a Greek compound word meaning “many” and “bound together.”
Difference Between Polysyndeton, Syndeton, and Asyndeton
The concepts of polysyndeton, syndeton, and asyndeton are all closely related, in that they all refer to the usage of conjunctions. Syndeton is the “normal” usage of conjunctions, which we all use in common conversation and writing. Thus, syndeton does not draw any attention to itself, and describes sentences such as, “I wore a sweater, a hat, and a scarf.” Both polysyndeton and asyndeton are more noticeable because they slightly change the normal pattern of speech. The definition of polysyndeton is opposite that of asyndeton. While polysyndeton refers to a statement that has more conjunctions than necessary, asyndeton refers to a sentence or group of sentences that omits all conjunctions where they could be appropriate. Thus, an example of polysyndeton would be, “I wore a sweater, and a hat, and a scarf, and a pair of boots, and mittens,” while an example of asyndeton would be, “I wore a sweater. A hat. A scarf. Mittens.” The effect is noticeably different between these two figures of speech.
Common Examples of Polysyndeton
There are many examples of polysyndeton in famous speeches and in movies:
- “In years gone by, there were in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.” –William F. Buckley
- “[Football is] a way of life, really, to those particular people who are a part of it. It’s more than a game, and regardless of what level it’s played upon, it still demands those attributes of courage and stamina and coordinated efficiency and goes even beyond that for [it] is a means – it provides a mental and physical relaxation to everybody that watches it, like yourself.” –Vince Lombardi
- “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
- “Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war – not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government – not any other thing. We are the killers.” –Katherine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter
Significance of Polysyndeton in Literature
Authors use examples of polysyndeton in poetry and prose for many different reasons. Some of the potential uses of polysyndeton are even contrary to each other. For example, one author might use polysyndeton to speed up a passage, while another might use it to slow down a list of related clauses. Polysyndeton was also a popular literary device in the Bible, and some authors might use it to reflect a more religious and ancient manner of writing and speaking. Polysyndeton may also create an overwhelming feeling, as we shall see in Example 4 below. Lastly, some authors such as William Faulkner use polysyndeton to emphasize a different mental state.
Examples of Polysyndeton in Literature
OTHELLO: Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face. If there be cords or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I’ll not endure it. Would I were satisfied!
(Othello by William Shakespeare)
In this polysyndeton example from Othello, Shakespeare repeats the conjunction “or” to illustrate the numerous ways that a person might die. Othello recites this list to show how serious he is that he does not desire to live if he finds out that Desdemona’s betrayal is true. The polysyndeton emphasizes that Othello will stop at nothing to find out the truth and dole out the consequences.
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.
(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)
Ernest Hemingway used many examples of polysyndeton in his writing. His style is very simple and plain, and he doesn’t use any flowery descriptions or embellishments in any of his works. This short description at the beginning of “Hills Like White Elephants” is just about all we see of the setting, and yet it effectively communicates the exhaustion-inducing heat and the unforgiving Spanish background.
Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
(The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner)
In this example of polysyndeton example William Faulkner is describing the action of playing golf through the eyes of a cognitively disabled adult. The repetitive use of “and” hints at a mental state that is trying to make sense of a strange situation and put clues together.
They basked in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden. 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. It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell.
(I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)
In this excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou lists all of the privileges that the “whitefolks” have. This list is overwhelming in that it encompasses most things in society that might be desired, yet Angelou contrasts the pleasures of this world with what the rewards in the afterlife might be.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
(“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)
This is another example of asyndeton in which the reader is privy to a certain mental state. Adrienne Rich mimics a sort of stream-of-consciousness in this excerpt from “Diving into the Wreck” as the “diver” goes further into the memory of what once was.
Test Your Knowledge of Polysyndeton
1. Which of the following statements is the best polysyndeton definition?
A. A sentence in which multiple conjunctions are used where they are accurate, yet not necessary.
B. A statement in which conjunctions are used improperly.
C. A group of related clauses that are not joined by any conjunctions at all.
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2. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare’s play Othello is a polysyndeton example?
IAGO: Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
DESDEMONA: Why, this is not a boon,
‘Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person.
OTHELLO: Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum.
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3. Which of the following is not a reason an author might use polysyndeton?
A. To slow down or speed up a passage.
B. To overwhelm a reader.
C. To mimic “normal” speech patterns.
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