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Writing

Understanding Asyndeton: Learn How Asyndeton Functions in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 5, 2020 • 3 min read

When drafting or revising, an author may look for ways to remove certain words from a sentence, perhaps even omitting conjunctions—an effect known as asyndeton.

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What Is Asyndeton?

Asyndeton is one of several rhetorical devices that omit conjunctions. The definition of asyndeton is simple enough: It is a sentence containing a series of words or clauses in close succession, linked without the use of conjunctions. To see an example of asyndeton in action, consider these two sentences.

Humans need only three things to survive: sustenance, clothing, and shelter.

Humans need only three things to survive: sustenance, clothing, shelter.

The only difference between these two sentences is that the second one omits the conjunction “and.” Therefore the second sentence uses asyndeton and the first sentence does not.

5 Examples of Asyndeton

Asyndeton has been a popular rhetorical and literary device dating back centuries. The word itself derives from the Greek asundetos, which means “unconnected.” The most famous quote attributed to the Roman warrior and leader Julius Caesar is the asyndetic declaration: “Veni, vidi, vici” which translates into English as “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The quick succession of these words is powerful enough, but the omission of the word “and” somehow makes it even more commanding. Other famous asyndeton examples include:

  1. Lord Winston Churchill’s World War II “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address (1940): “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be...”
  2. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address (1961): “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.”
  3. The Gettysburg Address of President Abraham Lincoln (1863): “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
  4. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899): “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was thick, warm, heavy, sluggish.”
  5. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599): “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?”
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Asyndeton vs. Polysyndeton: What Is the Difference?

Polysyndeton is similar to asyndeton but with an essential difference: While both literary devices connect a series of words in a sentence, polysyndeton makes repeated use of conjunctions. The repetition of conjunctions creates a different sentence rhythm than an asyndetic sentence with a total omission of conjunctions. Yet authors make use of polysyndeton for similar reasons: to create powerful waves of words that make a sentence particularly declarative.

Use of both asyndeton and polysyndeton can add strength to a novel, a short story, a play, or any work of spoken oration. These twin rhetorical styles may have been born in ancient civilizations, but they remain highly effective to this day.

2 Examples of Polysyndeton

Examples of polysyndeton can be found in a wide array of literary classics, including:

  1. Othello by William Shakespeare (1604): “If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I'll not endure it."
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859): “Jerry stood: aiming at the prisoner the beery breath of a whet he had taken as he came along, and discharging it to mingle with the waves of other beer, and gin, and tea, and coffee, and what not, that flowed at him, and already broke upon the great windows behind him in an impure mist and rain.”

You can find more than one example of polysyndeton in works by Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, Charles Dickens, and Aristotle. These authors and texts use polysyndeton to add emphasis and inject power into lists of words and phrases.

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