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Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis in Literature

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Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Parataxis and hypotaxis are literary terms that describe the way clauses in complex or simple sentences are ordered, positioned, and related to one another.



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What Is Parataxis?

Parataxis refers to the placing of two clauses next to one another without the use of subordinating conjunctions or coordinating conjunctions to clarify the relationship between the clauses. The omission of the conjunctions is also known as asyndeton. Sentences written in the paratactic style often use semicolons or commas to separate two or more independent clauses. The definition of parataxis derives from the Greek word paratassein meaning “placing side by side.”

Literary Example of Parataxis

Perhaps the most iconic example of parataxis is attributed to Julius Caesar: "Veni, vidi, vici." Another, lengthier example can be found in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1867):

“Come along, then,” said he of the green coat, lugging Mr. Pickwick after him by main force, and talking the whole way. “Here, No. 924, take your fare, and take yourself off—respectable gentleman—know him well—none of your nonsense—this way, sir—where’s your friends?—all a mistake, I see—never mind—accidents will happen—best regulated families—never say die—down upon your luck—pull him up—put that in his pipe—like the flavour—damned rascals.” And with a lengthened string of similar broken sentences, delivered with extraordinary volubility, the stranger led the way to the traveler’s waiting-room, whither he was closely followed by Mr. Pickwick and his disciples.

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What Is Hypotaxis?

Hypotaxis refers to the arrangement of a sentence in which the main clause is built upon by phrases or subordinate clauses. Hypotactic sentence construction uses subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns to connect a sentence’s main clause to its dependent elements. By explicitly defining a clear connection and order between the clauses through syntactic subordination, hypotactic sentences establish a hierarchy of importance, essentially ranking each clause in the sentence. The etymology of the word hypotaxis goes back to the Greek prefix hypo, meaning "beneath," combined with taxis, meaning “arrangement."

Literary Example of Hypotaxis

A notable instance of hypotaxis can be found in an excerpt from an issue of Rambler, an eighteenth-century periodical, by Samuel Johnson:

Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability.


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Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis: What’s the Difference?

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When used as literary devices, parataxis and hypotaxis can relay similar information in different ways. Your narrative style and the specific type of information you wish to convey will determine whether or not you use hypotaxis or parataxis.

In English literature, writers typically use parataxis in a narrative to convey a stream of consciousness, in which a character’s continuous train of thought is indicated by the paratactic unity of multiple complex sentences. This literary technique can create the sensation that words and thoughts are piling on top of one another, suggesting a fast-paced, scattered narrative point of view. It offers the juxtaposition of clauses without the implication of the hierarchy inherent in the use of hypotaxis.

The grammatical arrangement of hypotactical sentences, meanwhile, ensures that the phrases therein are organized as a main clause bolstered by subordinate clauses. The conjunctions clarify the relationship between the clauses, be it chronology, cause and effect, or another form of comparison. Whereas writers may use parataxis to create a loose, impressionistic picture of events, hypotaxis can force the reader to deeply analyze the relationships between clauses while allowing the author to highlight the importance of one clause over another.

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