Parataxis and Hypotaxis

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Parataxis and Hypotaxis”

  1. Silly question. I’ll bet there were no taxis, there were none in Beowulf’s time, there certainly was not a par of ’em anywhere. But it’s early in the day for me…

  2. Hi Maeve! I was just looking up parataxis/hypotaxis on your page, and it sounded a lot to me like two other fancy-sounding literary devices: asyntedon/polysyntedon.

    Hemingway is cited as a user of polysyntedon:

    from After The Storm

    ‘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.”

    Here Hemingway’s still seems to be the exact opposite of what you cited. (Although it still sounds equally child-like!)

    So my question is: are parataxis/asyntodon two different things, or do you think Hemingway’s style is actually a bit more more varied?

    Maybe, if parataxis/asyntodon are effectively the same thing, then ‘Hemingway’s narrative style was so paratactic..’ is not an accurate reflection of his overall style


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