Are you interested in polysyndeton examples?
Maybe you’re looking for definitions and clarifications and explanations and examples.
See what I did there?
Polysyndeton means using the same conjunction repeatedly in a sentence. It’s a neat literary device that can be used for a number of powerful effects.
We’re going to explore what polysyndeton as a literary and stylistis device by discussing what it is, isn’t, and look at some examples of it in action.
What is Polysydenton?
Polysyndeton is a literary device involving the repeated use of a coordinating conjunction in a sentence, where this repeated use isn’t grammatically necessary.
Need a quick refresher on coordinating conjunctions?
The simplest way to think of them is as “joining words” (that’s what my 7-year-old calls them). The most commonly used conjunctions for polysyndeton are and and or.
How Does Polysyndeton Differ From Asyndeton and Syndeton?
It’s easy to get muddled between polysyndeton, asyndeton, and syndeton. So let’s look at how they differ.
Syndeton is very common. The word “syndeton” comes from the Greek word συνδετόν, which means “bound together with.”
Basically, using a conjunction to join two parts of a sentence. Pick up any book and you’ll find dozens of examples. Here’s a simple one:
We packed sandwiches and apples.
If you’re listing items, the normal way to do this is to put a comma before each item, then use the word and before the final item in the list:
We packed sandwiches, apples, raisins, cupcakes, and chips.
Polysyndeton — the Greek prefix “poly” meaning “many” — involves using the same conjunction repeatedly, not multiple conjunctions used in succession:
We packed sandwiches and apples and raisins and cupcakes and chips.
This stylistic choice puts extra weight on each item in the list, perhaps suggesting this is an unusual amount of food for the group to pack (notice the lack of commas).
Asyndeton — the Greek prefix “a” meaning “not” — involves omitting conjunctions altogether and using a comma before the final item in a list.
We packed sandwiches, apples, raisins, cupcakes, chips.
This creates a clipped, hurried rhythm, as if the food was being packed in a rush. Think of it like dramatic effect.
Polysyndeton Examples from Famous Literature
Now that you’re clear on what polysyndeton is — and isn’t! — we’re going to dig into some examples.
In literature, polysyndeton can be used to draw our attention to a particular passage, to create a sense of time passing, or even for humorous effect.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
“[…] and Belmonte’s jaw came further out in contempt, and his face turned yellower, and he moved with greater difficulty as his pain increased, and finally the crowd were actively against him, and he was utterly contemptuous and indifferent.”
In Chapter 18 of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway writes about the bullfighter Belmonte.
He’s faced with an increasingly hostile audience who wants more entertainment than he — insisting that “his bulls should not be too large, nor too dangerously armed with horns” and “sick with a fistula” — can provide.
The use of polysyndeton in this passage shows how pain and exhaustion is starting to overtake him, one thing piling on top of another in this second half of a long sentence.
There’s also a sense of time passing with the “ands” elongating the sentence for that dramatic effect we talked about earlier.
As the reader, we feel sorry for Belmonte, struggling through a fight on a hot afternoon, unable to find more than the briefest sense of his old greatness.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scence 5, William Shakespeare (1597)
“Your love says, like an honest gentleman, and a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and, I warrant, a virtuous — where is your mother?”
Juliet’s nurse here is delivering much-awaited news about Romeo and Juliet’s marriage to the impatient Juliet.
Having already complained about being out of breath, and gone on at length about Romeo’s looks, the nurse now draws out what she’s saying even more by praising Romeo as honest, courteous, kind, and handsome.
The use of polysyndeton here, with dependant clauses, serves to make the Nurse’s wordiness even more extreme (and funnier) — only to end with the Nurse interrupting herself by asking Juliet, “Where is your mother?”
Throughout the play, the Nurse is a comic character, prone to rambling on (even at serious moments) and this passage is very much in that vein.
Polysyndeton Examples from Famous Speeches
As a rhetorical device, polysyndeton can be an effective way to emphasize the point that a speaker is making. It can also help to give equal importance to a number of different items in a list.
Let’s take a look at how polysyndeton works in three different speeches.
I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King (1963)
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
The King James Bible uses many examples of polysyndeton, and Martin Luther King quotes Isaiah Chapter 40, verses 4-5 here in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Even if you’re not familiar with the reference, the rhythm of the repeated “and” may well have indicated to you that it’s a Bible quote.
In the context of the speech as a whole, this use of polysyndeton also helps to show the visionary, far-reaching appeal of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream for a world where:
“my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Keynote Address at the Democratic National Conference, Barack Obama (2004)
“Now, don’t get me wrong, the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solve all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead. And they want to.”
This whole speech is well worth a read. It was well received, instrumental in elevating Obama’s status within the Democratic Party, and paved the path to him becoming President.
There are several rhetorical devices used masterfully throughout, but this use of polysyndeton is particularly effective by showing Obama’s interest in the whole of America:
Ordinary Americans, those in “small towns” on the exact same footing with him as those in “big cities”; those in “diners” just as important as those in “office parks”.
There’s an interesting twist on polysyndeton later in the speech…
“I thought of the 900 men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors who won’t be returning to their own hometowns.”
Here, Obama uses the structure of asyndeton (with a comma rather than an and before the final pairing “friends and neighbors”).
But the polysyndeton-like weight of the repeated “ands” in each pairing serves to further emphasize the diverse humanity of people who serve in the military.
Keynote Address at The University of the Arts, Neil Gaiman (2012)
“I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn’t, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.”
This fantastic speech by Neil Gaiman is a passionate look at the importance of making art, doing your own thing, and of enjoying the ride. While it’s not as famous as the other two speeches we’ve looked at, it’s valuable to examine.
And it’s jam-packed with great examples of polysyndeton.
Here’s another extract from a little later in the speech:
“So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” Those ands build up, one on another, to create a picture of a rich, fruitful, and unique life.
How to Use Polysyndeton Effectively
Want to try this stylist device for yourself?
To use polysyndeton effectively, it’s a good idea to:
- Think about what you’re trying to achieve. Polysyndeton can be effective in different ways. Depending on the context and your other word choices, it could be used for a rather breathless, excitable character; to suggest a child’s (or child-like) voice; or to give extra weight to your words.
- Consider whether polysyndeton works for the rhythm of the sentence or passage that you’re writing. You might want to try reading it aloud.
- Try switching your sentence or paragraph around: use asyndeton instead of polysyndeton. Which seems to better convey the meaning or tone that you’re aiming for?
Some authors and some works of literature are particularly well-known for their use of polysyndeton. You can find lots of examples in Ernest Hemingway’s work, for instance, and the King James Bible, along with other translations, use a huge amount of polysyndeton.
But unless you want to make polysyndeton a hallmark of your own writing style, you’ll want to use it fairly sparingly.
Mastered These Polysyndeton Examples? It’s Time to Use Polysyndeton in Your Own Writing
Polysyndeton might sound fancy…
But it’s one of the simplest literary devices to use in your own work.
Whether you’re writing fiction, an inspiring speech, a heartfelt blog post, or even a piece of marketing copy, polysyndeton can be a handy tool.
This week, give it a try.
Incorporate polysyndeton into a piece that you’re working on — or go back to something you wrote a while ago and see if you could enhance it’s rhythm with some well-placed polysyndeton.