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Understanding Asyndeton: Meaning, Functions, and Examples
Various kinds of grammatical coordination create special effects in writing. Asyndeton is one of them. This popular literary device dates back centuries, making a quick succession of words, phrases, sentences to make them more commanding. In this article, we explore the meaning, functions, examples of asyndeton in creative writing.
What is asyndeton?
Asyndeton is a literary device that omits conjunctions between a series of words, phrases, or clauses. It helps to shorten a sentence, focus on its meaning, and produce a fast rhythm. It can be a way for story writers to craft a fast-paced action scene. Take this passage, for example:
"Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom!" (Bradbury, 1953)
The list of words in this passage is devoid of any conjunctions, which creates a sense of speed and urgency for readers.
Asyndeton comes from a Greek word, which translates as "unconnected." A classic example is Julius Ceaser's veni, vidi, vici, which translates in English as "I came, I saw, I conquered." It is a kind of coordination between conjoins that doesn't involve conjunctions.
Effects of asyndeton in literature
Popularly, as we have also stated earlier, asyndeton helps to speed up the pace of your narration or prose. By omitting conjunction, you allow readers to quickly acknowledge the action or items on a list. Consider this passage from The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler:
"Joona walks through the Christmas market in Bollnäs Square. Fires are burning, horses are snorting, chestnuts are roasting. Children race through a stone maze, others drink hot chocolate."
This narration shows how quickly Joana notices everything in her surroundings. It is as though each activity is calling her attention at once. And readers experience them in the same way because of the use of asyndeton.
Asyndeton also helps to emphasize a repeated phrase or clause. The omission of conjunctions allows readers to focus on the series of clauses and the message they portray, especially when these clauses are parallel. A good example is this famous quote from Winston Churchill:
"... We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..."
Also, from this statement, we can notice that without the use of conjunctions, Churchill indicates that there is no limit to where "we shall fight them." This is another effect of asyndeton; without the conjunctions that appear toward the end of a list or series, it suggests that a list isn't exhausted and more examples of the items abound.
Examples of asyndeton in literature
To better demonstrate the usage of asyndeton, here are some examples from notable works of fiction:
Angela Carter, The Werewolf (1979). "Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within. There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Harsh, brief, poor lives."
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-1853). "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats."
Lars Kepler, The Hypnotist. Trans. by Ann Long. Picador, 2011.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953
Angela Carter, "The Werewolf." The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, 1979.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1852-1853.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen