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What is Polysyndeton? Meaning, Purpose and Examples
Polysyndeton is an interesting literary device you can employ in your writing to create a special rhythmic and emphatic effect. It involves using conjunctions in an ungrammatical yet effective way that makes your prose remarkable. In this article, we explain what polysyndeton entails and how it can enhance your writing, illustrating these details with examples from notable literature.
What is polysyndeton?
Polysyndeton comes from two ancient Greek words; "poly," meaning many, and syndeton, meaning "bound together with." The etymology works to describe a polysyndeton correctly; it uses several conjunctions — and, or, for, but — to join clauses, phrases, or words together in a sentence. These recurring conjunctions may not be grammatically proper or required but provide a stylistic scheme that serves a rhythmic purpose. It often creates the desired mood in a passage and slows up the rhythm of your prose.
A classic example of polysyndeton is the postal creed:
‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers.’
In the creed, it is obviously grammatically unnecessary to repeat the conjunction. The sentence could just read as, "Neither snow, rain, heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers." But the repeated "nor" gives weight to each item on the list and adds rhythm to the expression.
The purpose of polysyndeton in writing
You can use the repeated conjunction to present a list that purposely overwhelms the reader. Consider this example:
"It was quite a crowd; he brought his wife and his son and his daughter, and his daughter's cat, and his son's dog, and his neighbors and their children and their pets to the party."
The list uses polysyndeton to highlight how many people came with the man to the party, intentionally making it overwhelming for readers. This instance also indicates the tone of the speaker.
Polysyndeton also adds pauses in a sentence, emphasizing each word, phrase, or clause in a sequence. Take this statement, for example:
"Mrs. Wynn... was slight and neat and young and modern and dark and pink-cheeked and still pretty, and had a pair of the most intelligent, bright brown eyes Robert had ever seen." (Tey, 1949).
Here, the repeated conjunction clearly emphasizes all the physical features of Mrs. Wynn for readers. It also creates a rhythmic effect in this prose. The rhythmic pay-off of polysyndeton is also evident in this excerpt from the autobiography of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
"Let the white-folks 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."
Examples of polysyndeton in literature.
An effective way to understand this literary device is to see how writers have used it in literature. And here are two notable examples from great works of fiction:
E. B. White, Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street. "But Fryeburg is where some of my wife's ancestors lived, and is in the valley of the Saco, looking west to the mountains, and the weather promised to be perfect, and the premium list of the agricultural society said, 'Should Any Day Be Stormy, the Exercises for That Day Will Be Postponed to the First Fair Day,' and I would rather have a ringside seat at a cattle sale than a box at the opera, so we picked up and left town, deliberately overshooting Fryeburg by 175 miles in order to sleep one night at home."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. "By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names."
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Random House, 1969.
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair. Macmillan, 1949.
E. B. White, "Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street." Essays of E. B. White. Harper, 1977.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen