Definition of Asyndeton
Asyndeton refers to the omission of a conjunction such as “and” or “as” from a series of related clauses. The function of asyndeton is usually to accelerate a passage and emphasize the significance of the relation between these clauses. One famous example is Julius Caesar’s comment “Veni, vidi, vici” after a swift victory in battle, translated into English as “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The use of asyndeton here works well because the rapidness of the sentence reflects the rapidness of the victory.
The word “asyndeton” comes from the Greek asundetos, meaning “not linked” or “unconnected.”
Difference Between Asyndeton, Syndeton, and Polysydeton
The definition of asyndeton is opposite that of syndeton, which refers to the use of one conjunction to connect related clauses (“When I was a child I played basketball, football, and soccer”). Asyndeton is also different from polysyndeton, which is the usage of several conjunctions where they could possibly be omitted (“I’m so hungry I could eat a salad and a soup and an entrée and dessert”).
Common Examples of Asyndeton
Many famous orators have used examples of asyndeton in their speeches:
- “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” –John F. Kennedy
- “We shall go on to the end, 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…” –Winston Churchill
- “Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.” –General Douglas MacArthur
Significance of Asyndeton in Literature
Authors may use asyndeton to speed up a passage and propel a reader toward a conclusion. This may happen in scenes where there is much action in the plot so as not to get bogged down in details. Authors may also use asyndeton to emphasize a repeated word or phrase, such as in Winston Churchill’s repetition of “we shall” above, and in Examples 3 and 4 below. The use of asyndeton can also be to highlight the connection between words or concepts to show how they are related. Sometimes asyndeton can be a device simply to add rhetorical weight.
Examples of Asyndeton in Literature
ANTONY: O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.
—I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank.
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare used many examples of asyndeton in his plays and poems. Fittingly, he used asyndeton in his play Julius Caesar, perhaps echoing the real man’s famous asyndeton example, “Veni, vidi, vici.” In this excerpt, the character Antony uses asyndeton in the line, “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure?” In this example, Shakespeare has not used a conjunction so as to emphasize the relation between the concepts of conquest, glory, triumph, and spoils. Antony also uses asyndeton in the line, “I know not, gentlemen, what you intend, who else must be let blood, who else is rank.” In this example, the omission of conjunctions makes the line more poetic and creates more weight.
An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was thick, warm, heavy, sluggish.
(Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)
This is a simple example of asyndeton in which Joseph Conrad describes the setting of his novel, Heart of Darkness. Both lines contain asyndeton examples; in the first, the omission of a conjunction is poetic, while in the second line, the four adjectives are listed without conjunction to show their similarity. Unlike examples of asyndeton in which the omission of a conjunction seems to quicken the pace, in this second line the asyndeton seems to bog the description down, befitting of the warm, heavy air.
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family….Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future.
(Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh)
This is perhaps the most famous quote from Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting. The repetition of the word “choose” at first seems optimistic—the choices are “life,” “a job,” “a career,” and “a family.” However, it soon becomes clear that the narrator does not think much of these choices as he continues to list them off without any conjunctions. As the list goes on, the choices become increasingly depressing, ending with “rotting away in the end of it all.” The use of asyndeton creates an overwhelming sense of the futility of all of these choices.
Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet wound, death by wooden stake…death by silence, death by natural causes.
A stupid, endless menu of death.
But death by tightrope?
Death by performance?
That’s what it amounted to. So flagrant with his body. Making it cheap. The puppetry of it all.
(Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann)
Like Trainspotting, in Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin there is a list of possibilities all beginning with the same word. The narrator of this section, a woman whose son died in Vietnam, imagines many different possible deaths (in fact, there are over eighty options listed; this is just an excerpt of them). This long, seemingly interminable list with the use of asyndeton starts to numb the reader with all of the possible fatal incidences. The narrator contrasts the list to her incredulity that a man might choose a death so foolish.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
(“Her Kind” by Anne Sexton)
Asyndeton examples can also be found in poetry, as in Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind.” This excerpt is the first stanza of the poem, in which Sexton compares herself to “a possessed witch.” The use of asyndeton here contributes to a certain spookiness, especially with the line, “long thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.” These three descriptive details without any conjunctions add to a sense of dread.
Test Your Knowledge of Asyndeton
1. Which of the following statements is the best asyndeton definition?
A. A figure of speech in which conjunctions are omitted so as to speed up a passage.
B. The usage of many different conjunctions where they are redundant.
C. Joining a series of related clauses with one conjunction.
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2. Consider the following excerpt from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting:
People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it.
Is this an example of asyndeton, polysyndeton, or syndeton?
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3. Which of the following excerpts from Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin is an example of asyndeton?
On weekend mornings we strolled with our mother, ankle-deep in the low tide, and looked back to see the row of houses, the tower, and the little scarves of smoke coming up from the chimneys.
All that could be seen was a pair of elbows or the end of a shirtsleeve, or an arm garter, but then it was joined by a head, or an odd-looking pair of hands above it, lifting the frame even higher.
They found themselves in small groups together beside the traffic lights on the corner of Church and Dey; gathered under the awning of Sam’s barbershop; in the doorway of Charlie’s Audio; a tight little theater of men and women against the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel; elbowing for space at the windows of the Woolworth Building.
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