Definition of Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton is a stylistic device in which several coordinating conjunctions are used in succession in order to achieve an artistic effect. Polysyndeton examples are found in literature and in day-to-day conversations.
The term polysyndeton comes from a Greek word meaning “bound together.” It makes use of coordinating conjunctions like and, or, but, and nor (mostly ‘and’ and ‘or’) which are used to join successive words, phrases, or clauses in such a way that these conjunctions are even used where they might have been omitted. For example, in the sentence, “We have ships and men and money and stores,” the coordinating conjunction “and” is used in quick succession to join words occurring together. In a normal situation, the coordinating conjunction “and” is used to join the last two words of the list, and the rest of the words in the list are separated or joined by a comma.
Polysyndeton vs. Asyndeton
Polysyndeton is opposite to another stylistic device known as “asyndeton.” In asyndeton, the words in a list are separated by commas, and no conjunctions are used to join the words in a list. Thomas S. Kane describes the difference between the two devices, saying that they are nothing more than the techniques of handling a long series of words or lists.
Polysyndeton uses conjunctions after every word or term, while asyndeton uses no conjunctions but only commas. For example: “Jane’s days became a blur of meaningless events – wake up, brush teeth, make the coffee, get the mail, fix dinner, watch TV. It was hard to keep depression at bay.”
Difference Between Syndeton, Polysyndeton, and Asyndeton
Syndeton is a syntactic construction in which two or more phrases are joined together with coordinating conjunctions. However, in the case of polysyndeton, it is the repetitive occurrence of conjunctions, while in the case of asyndeton the conjunctions are missing. For example, they like ham and cheese shows the use of syndeton, but if it is, they like ham and cheese and mayonnaise and bread, it is polysyndeton and if all the conjunctions are omitted in this sentence replaced with commas, it is the asyndeton.
Using Coordinating Conjunctions and Subordinating Conjunctions in Polysyndeton
Coordinating conjunctions are used in polysyndeton, while the use of subordinate conjunctions, somewhat, creates an awkward sentence. However, its use is not completely ruled out. Sometimes, there are only subordinate conjunctions in a sentence such as “I went home because I had a task to perform because I had had to go early in the next morning.” This shows this awkwardness that has crept into this sentence because of the use of this subordinate conjunction.
Difference Between Anaphora and Polysyndeton
Whereas an anaphora is a successive repetition of some words and phrases, a polysyndeton is the repetition of conjunctions in successive phrases or clauses with the purpose to join them. Both, however, are rhetorical terms, while anaphora is mostly used in poems and ballads, polysyndeton is mostly used in prose writing. Yet, both are suitable for speech.
Use of Polysyndeton in Sentences
- Neither he nor his brother nor his mother nor his sister was present in the house.
- Charles and Bukowski and their friends are of the same nature.
- He has completed his essay and story and poem and diary.
- Rebekah is wearing her weather and a hat and her muffler and her cap and her trench coat. Maybe she’s freezing.
- There are plenty of snacks for you Johny. You can have bread or cookies or lasagna or pizza or muffins or dry fruits or just drink water.
Examples of Polysyndeton in Literature
Example #1: The Holy Bible, Joshua 7:24 by the Prophet Joshua
“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.”
This is among the best examples of polysyndeton found in classical or religious texts. See how the conjunction “and” has been used in quick succession to join all the items given in this text.
Example #2: After the Storm by Ernest Hemingway
“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.”
Hemingway has used “and” as a polysyndeton in this passage taken from “After the Storm.” Using this literary device, Hemmingway is able to make his readers feel the anxiety that his character is feeling.
Example #3: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, a popular female poet, is well known for her use of polysyndeton, which can seem excessive at times. This is what she has written in her story I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
“Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly–mostly–let them have their whiteness.”
The continuity in the entire sentence is remarkable, and the rhythm is exhilarating.
Example #4: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
“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. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places.”
Charles Dickens is also well-known for his use of polysyndeton, as well as commas – often using both of these devices. You can see the effects in this passage taken from Dombey and Son.
Function of Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton performs several functions. Not only does it join words, phrases, and clauses, bringing continuity to a sentence, but it acts also as a stylistic device that brings rhythm to the text with the repetition of conjunctions in quick succession. It is also employed as a tool to lay emphasis to the ideas the conjunctions connect.
Synonyms of Polysyndeton
Similar to most literary devices, Polysyndeton does not have an exact synonym. However, some other related terms such as hyperbole, irony, oxymoron, epiphany, asyndeton, and anaphora could be used as synonyms but they are not interchangeable.