When a reader asked me to write about “the terms parataxis and hypotaxis and how they relate to Beowulf,” I had to laugh.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite a fan of Beowulf. Wearing my academic hat, I’ve written more than one essay about this treasure of English literature, but somehow it doesn’t strike me as a suitable topic for the DWT audience. I was pleased by the request, but put it away at the bottom of my idea file.
Now, however, I’m ready to write about parataxis and hypotaxis–not as they relate to Beowulf, but as they relate to non-academic writing.
parataxis: the placing of clauses one after another, without connecting words (conjunctions) to show the relation between them.
Dickens employs parataxis in his opening to A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
Hypotaxis, on the other hand, refers to the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions to indicate the relation between clauses. Here’s a passage from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit that illustrates hypotaxis:
After losing [his shoes], he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket.
Parataxis is common in conversation, as illustrated in this passage written by an author noted for his ability to capture contemporary speech:
“Actually,” Chris said, “you get right down to it, Phyllis’s the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds…I’m sitting here trying to stay awake, she’s telling me about the exciting world of trust funds.” –Elmore Leonard, Freaky Deaky.
Hemingway’s narrative style was so paratactic as to sound babyish:
Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.
Hemingway got away with it, but a college freshman or a business executive who wrote like that would not be regarded as much of a communicator. Clear writing demands connecting words like if, because, and so.
As for a discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis in Beowulf, I’ll leave that to the scholars who love to argue about such things.