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Writing

What Is Polysyndeton? Learn How Polysyndeton Functions in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

There are a whole host of literary terms writers use to describe how they construct language. One of the most unique ones is polysyndeton—a literary technique in which a conjunction appears over and over again to join different thoughts in one sentence.

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What Is Polysyndeton?

The definition of polysyndeton is the repeated use of coordinating conjunctions to connect different items in a sentence. The repetition of conjunctions—and, but, or, nor—in close succession is a deliberate style choice to place emphasis on each listed word or phrase. The effect is often an excited or serious mood. The word polysyndeton comes from the Greek sundetos, which means “bound together.”

What Is the Purpose of Polysyndeton in Literature?

Polysyndeton’s quick succession of words or phrases creates a powerful rhetorical effect in writing. As one thought finishes, the next one is right behind, which can purposely overwhelm the reader. If a character is speaking excitedly or anxiously, polysyndeton can convey that feeling. Writers also use polysyndetons to create pauses in a sentence; this allows an emphasis on each of the series of words or thoughts to show that each one is equally important. Polysyndeton creates a rhythmic cadence, sometimes speeding the tempo up and sometimes slowing it down.

6 Examples of Polysyndeton

The best way to understand this literary technique is to read how writers have used it in literature. Here are six polysyndeton examples from great works of writing:

  1. Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son: Charles Dickens frequently used polysyndeton throughout his work. In this story, Dickens uses the literary device to emphasize disrepair in a town that is resistant to change. “There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway.”
  2. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Maya Angelou’s use of polysyndeton in her autobiography creates a metered rhythm similar to poetic verse. The conjunctions force the stress onto the next word. As Angelou lists out the privileges that white people have that black people don’t, it supports the intensity of her experience of racism and segregation in America.
  3. Ernest Hemingway, After the Storm: Hemingway uses polysyndeton to build anxiety in this short story by compounding multiple events into a stream of consciousness that parallels the chaotic scene. A character, breathless after a bar fight, is looking for his boat in the immediate aftermath of a devastating hurricane; he describes the scene in a run-on sentence, with brief image-heavy phrases linked by the conjunction “and.”
  4. William Shakespeare, Othello: Shakespeare uses polysyndeton when Othello lists the number of torturous ways to die as he tries to determine if his wife has been unfaithful. The compounding effect of this list emphasizes Othello’s anxiety: "If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I'll not endure it."
  5. James Goldman, The Lion in Winter: This theatrical play uses a dramatic example of polysyndeton. Queen Eleanor is lecturing her sons, referring to them as her piglets. To emphasize that humans are the origins of war, she lists forces that in themselves are not the cause of war, all linked by the conjunction “nor.”
  6. King James Bible: In England’s biblical translation, there are many examples of polysyndeton like this one: "And Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had."
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Polysyndeton vs. Asyndeton

Asyndeton is similar to polysyndeton but with an essential difference: While both literary devices connect a series of words in a sentence, asyndeton uses commas as the bridge rather than conjunctions. This creates a faster cadence that moves quickly over the listed words. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes the air as “thick, warm, heavy, sluggish,” creating a dense imagery. One of the most famous examples of asyndeton is Julius Caesar’s quote, “Vene, vidi, vici”—I came, I saw, I conquered.

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