Monday Metaphor: Asyndeton: I came, I wrote, I blogged

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:

“…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.

“…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.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    Jun 20, 2011 @ 09:12:53

    You’ve done it again. I love this Monday post!


  2. Doug Day
    Jun 20, 2011 @ 10:25:45

    I never stop learning from you, Barbara. (Not bad, only one comma or is it two)


  3. Bill Kirk
    Jun 20, 2011 @ 15:22:06

    Hi, Barbara. Nice differentiation between the two sentence construction tools and I love all your examples. In my writing I use both tools and many other verbal and punctuation devices as well. But my approach (as you may be cringing at the conjunction to start the sentence) is to write “outloud”—capturing the sense of what the reader might pick up if they were hearing the passage instead of reading it.

    There are conjunctions, dashes (elipses), commas, periods, semi-colons—all sprinkled into my sentences to move the story or poem or rhyme along. In fact, in one of your sentences in the next post below, I might have punctuated the quote with a period instead of a comma after Yeah” to emphasize the “Yeah” as a stand-alone statement even though it isn’t a sentence in its own right.

    This stuff is way fun to play with….


  4. Ann and Dale
    Jun 21, 2011 @ 01:24:15

    I have no quarrel with starting a sentence with “But.”

    I think I have found a fellow punctuationfile (if I may coin a word). The variety of punctuation marks add so much to the meaning of a sentence and should be considered a strong partner with words.


  5. Adriana Ryan
    Jun 21, 2011 @ 12:43:29

    Ah, I love grammar posts. *Drool* It’s impossible to have too many of those. It’s funny, but I use asyndeton (I had no idea it had a name) in a lot of my more serious writing. It really lends a certain voice and mood to a piece.


  6. J. Aday Kennedy
    Jun 21, 2011 @ 17:35:49

    I think reading your blog is making me smarter. lol


  7. Ann and Dale
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 13:51:08

    Hi Adriana,
    I think I’ll add your name along with Bill Kirk’s to my list of fellow-punctuationfiles.

    The thing about the English language, is that everything we do to and with words has a name. I am having a ball finding out more about our wonderful growing language.

    And if it’s making my readers smarter, as it is J. Aday and Doug, then I am doing my job.

    I don’t know who WordPress is going to give credit for this comment — but it’s me — Barbara.


  8. Barbara Bockman
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 14:01:27

    Checking to see if I’m back.



  9. Pam Maynard
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 17:37:14

    I agree with J. Aday, your Monday posts make me much smarter! Thanks so much.


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