I hope you and Julius Caesar will forgive me for warping his famous declaration.
The standard English sentence with a series calls for commas to separate each item and a conjunction before the last item.
Last time we talked about polysyndeton, the use of conjunctions throughout the series without commas.
This time we will talk about asyndeton, the use of commas to separate the items of a series without conjunctions.
There are some good reasons for using this rhetorical device. Sometimes the writer wants to give the impression that the list is not complete. The omission of a conjunction gives the feeling of speed and concision to lists and phrases and clauses. The use of a final conjunction might weaken the power of the sentence, so leaving it out makes for a strong and direct climatic effect.
When I’m writing, I have an instinctive feel for whether a series needs a conjunction or a comma/semi-colon. Here is an example from my folk tale,
“The Devil’s Millhopper” published in Long Story Short.
So Janey piled her corn into a wheelbarrow and took it to the
Devil’s mill. She descended a winding path into the gloomy
nether region, roiling clouds spitting out jagged shafts of lightening
over her head. Briars clawed at her skirts, crawly things squirmed
beneath her feet, eyes glowed red from behind shriveled trees.
There are many exemplary uses of asyndeton in speeches and literature. Here are a few.
Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric that this device was more effective in spoken oratories than in written prose:
“Thus strings of unconnected words, and constant repetitions of words and phrases, are very properly condemned in written speeches: but not in spoken speeches — speakers use them freely, for they have a dramatic effect. In this repetition there must be variety of tone, paving the way, as it were, to dramatic effect; e.g., ‘This is the villain among you who deceived you, who cheated you, who meant to betray you completely.'”
American politicians have used the stratagem to great effect:
“…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
The US Declaration of Independence includes an example of asyndeton, referring to the British:
“We must… hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
Asyndeton is another useful technique in the writer’s bag of tricks.