Polysyndeton: What it Means, and Examples of How to Use It
You might well never have heard of polysyndeton before, but you’ve almost certainly seen it in action. Here’s an example:
“At the weekend, we went to the park and the fair and the swimming pool and the movie theatre.”
Polysyndeton means repeating conjunctions when you don’t need them. Here’s how The Write Practice defines it:
“Polysyndeton is a literary technique in which conjunctions (e.g. and, but, or) are used repeatedly in quick succession, often with no commas, even when the conjunctions could be removed.”
Polysyndeton tends to slow the reader down, and it also has the effect of making each item listed in the sentence appear to have equal weight. (In regular writing – which uses syndeton – the final item can often seem more important or significant, due to it getting a conjunction rather than a comma.)
Here are some more examples, using different conjunctions:
“Want a sandwich? You could have ham or cheese or salad or salami.”
“I went to the shop but they were out of potatoes but I looked for pasta instead but there was none but I did find some rice.”
Effects of Polysyndeton (and Examples)
Depending on the language with which it’s used, polysyndeton can:
#1: Give a breathless or excited feel to the writing:
Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of.
(From Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
#2: Help create the effect of a child’s voice:
He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing eyes and muddy boots, bent down to look through their legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.
(From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce)
#3: Pile things together so that the overall effective is numbing or distancing:
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 and 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 all right only she was full of water.
(From “After the Storm”, a short story by Ernest Hemingway)
#4: Add Weight or Gravity to the Words
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
(Unofficial motto of the US postal office)
Asyndeton: The Opposite of Polysyndeton
The opposite of polysydeton is asyndeton, where conjunctions are omitted altogether – meaning there’s no final “and” or “or” in a sentence.
The third sentence here is a good example:
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
(From the oath made by the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones)
Examples of Polysyndeton in Speeches
As well as being used in writing, polysyndeton (and its opposite, asyndeton) can be used as a rhetorical device when giving a speech.
Both affect the rhythm and speed of a sentence, so they’re particularly suited to making listeners pay special attention to the words.
Here are a few examples of polysyndeton used in speeches:
In years gone by, there were in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.
(William F. Buckley, founder of National Review)
We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.
(President Trump, inaugural address)
I ask you to look back on your moments of powerlessness. Look back to that moment where you had to get on your knees and scrub and sweep and mop and wax and buff and buff and buff and rebuff, and buff again, a floor that someone was going to walk on and probably scuff two minutes later. That feeling is what it is to be human.
Humble yourself and accept your humanity – and don’t deny it in others. When you lead your people, exude that understanding of a struggle and a fight – and fight for them, and be for them.
(DeCarol Davis, U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Commencement Address)
You’ve probably come across plenty of examples of polysyndeton in things you’ve read or heard – and you may well have used it in your own writing.
Now you know what it is, look out for opportunities to use it more consciously, to achieve specific effects in your work.