Monday Metaphor: Polysyndeton: Forget the Commas

I have great respect for commas. I believe each comma should have a reason for being in the sentence, and as an English teacher, I know the reasons for most commas. In some cases, the use of the comma is optional, as in when two very short clauses come together. Here’s an example: Dick tossed the ball and Jane caught it. Strictly speaking, a comma should have separated the two clauses but it’s understandable without one. Some sentences change meaning by the use or non-use of a comma. To paraphrase Marjorie Kennan Rawlings: “She watched him, speculating.” or “She watched him speculating.” In the first sentence, it is she who is speculating. In the second sentence, it is he who is speculating.

All this to simply say: I DON’T BELIEVE IN THROWING AROUND COMMAS WILLY-NILLY!

I think we’ve all be taught to separate the items in a list with a comma until we get to the last one. Personally, I still like to use a comma for the last one, but I know not everyone does and some editors don’t require it. That’s okay.

But there are special cases when doing without the commas and using a conjunction throughout is allowed.

The rhetorical term for the sentence style that employs many conjunctions is polysyndeton. The word comes from the Greek and means “bound together.” The writer can achieve overwhelming effects using this device.

Cindy Rogers, in Word Magic for Writers, says, “Polysyndeton makes good use of the conjunction, placing it between each and every word, phrase, or clause. A Polysyndeton’s repetitious effect creates a feeling of building up, of extemporaneous enumeration, of an endlessness, in fact an emphasis . . .”

                                    ****

This is the beginning of a story I wrote for the Muse Conference,10-14-2008, in Beverly Stowe McClure’s forum. “Michael and the Dog” {working title}

            “Hey, Mom!” called Michael. He ran up the steps two at a time, dropped his book bag on the porch, and pounded on the screen door. “Look at this.”

            “Wait for me, Michael,” called Stevie. Stevie was huffing and puffing and shuffling behind Michael.

            The dog scampered around the boys, moving from one to the other.

                                    ****

            Here’s something my editor questioned recently when editing Wounds. (I explained that I want to show Carson as a strong-willed and determined girl). [comments welcome]

            Craig clicked off the television and got up to leave, with Siegfried following.

            “Why don’t you stay and help us, Craig?” said Carson. “We could use some more brain power.” She looked at Mark and  Norma Faith and Chan as if to dare them to dispute her.

            They didn’t. They nodded and mumbled, “Yeah, stay, Craig.”

                                    ****

Here are some stunning examples in literature.

There are two polysyndetons in this paragraph about Jody from Marjorie Kennan Rawlings’ The Yearling.

It seemed a strange thing to him, when earth was earth and rain was rain, that scrawny pines should grow in the scrub, while by every branch and lake and river there grew magnolias. Dogs were the same everywhere, and oxen and mules and horses. But trees were different in different places.

 

                              

 

      ****

This is from a tall tale about Davy Crockett and his wife, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind:


That very night, just as Sally Ann was lying down to go to sleep, she looked out the window and saw a whole gang of ferocious alligators surrounding their house. Now Sally Ann was determined to protect that little baby of theirs, so she ran outside and she began to fling those alligators this way and that. From that day on, everyone in the whole wide world knew that Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind was the bravest woman anywhere, and the strongest, and the fastest, and the toughest. Well, most people knew. Some folks didn’t believe it, and sometimes they tried to test her strength and her courage and her wit and her wisdom and her kindness. But every time they did, they discovered it was true–Sally Ann was just exactly like she said, truly amazing. 

                                    ****

“A Sad-Grand Moment That Never Came” by Julie Myerson:

On the afternoon we moved out of our house, once the removal men had taken everything and all that was left was fluff and dust and picture marks on the walls and the place was so echoey that even our own voices didn’t really sound like ours anymore, on that afternoon my husband and I walked around those empty rooms one last time to say goodbye.

****

Rogers notes that either E. B. White “or his editors chose to place commas after each verb in this example from Charlotte’s Web, but they aren’t necessary.”

“Struggle if you must,” said Templeton, “but kindly remember that I’m hiding down here in this crate and I don’t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed.”

                                    ****

Jerry Spinelli used polysyndeton in this passage from Maniac Magee.

There were fiction books and nonfiction books, who-did-it books and let’s-be-friends books and what-is-it books and how-to books and how-not-to books and just-regular-kid books.

****

Kate diCamillo, with the use of polysyndeton, makes us feel the heartache of the boy in Because of Winn-Dixie.

           He cried just like a baby. He missed his mama and he missed his

daddy and he missed his sisters and he missed the boy he used to be.

                                    ****

I find the rhetorical device of polysyndeton  intriguing and use it probably more than I should.

How about you?

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. J. Aday Kennedy
    Jun 13, 2011 @ 13:38:31

    I’m comma clueless.
    Aday

    Reply

  2. speak4languages
    Jun 13, 2011 @ 14:57:35

    Barbara,

    This post took my breath away! wow, this is so informative. Thank you so much.

    Nicole Weaver
    http://mysisterismybestfriend.blogspot.com

    Reply

  3. Pam Maynard
    Jun 13, 2011 @ 15:36:35

    Barb,
    Almost everything I have learned about commas over the last few years, I have learned from you!
    Thanks for this great info!

    Reply

    • Barbara Bockman
      Jun 13, 2011 @ 18:52:14

      J. Aday,
      If you want to know something, just ask.

      Nicole,
      I’m glad you found this post informative. I envy your knowledge of languages.

      Thanks, Pam.
      Your comment doesn’t say much for schoolteachers. Commas are very complicated, but I think they, more than any other mark of punctuation, help to determine the meaning of sentences. Even if kids don’t want to study punctuation and grammar, I think it is the only way to be truly literate.

      Reply

  4. Kavitha Punniyamurthi
    Jun 14, 2011 @ 14:06:03

    A truly informative post. Thank you so much for sharing it, Barbara.

    Kavitha Punniyamurthi
    Lucy’s Purple Pullover
    Guardian Angel Publishing

    Reply

  5. Barbara Bockman
    Jun 16, 2011 @ 17:54:10

    Hi Kavitha,
    I’m glad you for the information informative. I hope you can use it. If so, let me know.

    Reply

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