POLYSYNDETON: A GOOD INTRODUCTION TO LITERARY DEVICES
What is polysyndeton? (Pronounced polly-SIN-di-ton; almost like saying, "Polly sinned a ton," especially if you're British. If you're American, make the last syllable rhyme with "on.") Consider some definitions.
The Oxford English Dictionary:
“The use of several conjunctions or, more usually, the same conjunction several times, in swift succession.”
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.:
“repetition of conjunctions in close succession (as in we have ships and men and money and stores)”
The American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th ed.:
The repetition of conjunctions in close succession for rhetorical effect, as in here and there and everywhere.
“Choosing to have too many conjunctions is to make a polysyndeton.”
Ethelbert William Bullinger:
“The repetition of the word ‘and’ at the beginning of successive clauses.”
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:
“A rhetorical term for the repeated use of conjunctions to link together a succession of words, clauses, or sentences . . .”
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:
“(Gk ‘much compounded’) The opposite of asyndeton . . . and thus the repetition of conjunctions. . . . The most frequently used conjunction in English is ‘and.’”
A Dictionary of Literary Devices:
“The repetition of conjunctions more frequently than grammatical order demands.”
“Employing many conjunctions between clauses, often slowing the tempo or rhythm.”
Why would a writer use polysyndeton?
A writer using literary devices to figure speech is like a sculptor molding clay or a carpenter selecting from among a variety of tools to accomplish a particular job. Try as we might to approach objectivity in the rules and principles governing the use of language, we must accept the subjectivity inherent in the subject, which is to say that writing leans more toward art than science.
Deciding to use polysyndeton or any other literary device is usually a matter of subjective taste, of the individual writer’s gut instinct. You have to get a feel for it, and your feeling will differ from that of other writers. That being said, here are some thoughts on the use of polysyndeton with the most commonly employed conjunction, and.
By inserting extra ands instead of commas between the items in a series, you stretch that series out. The additional words can potentially slow down the reading of the series, and several sources note the deceleration resulting from polysyndeton. But extra words notwithstanding, sometimes the lack of commas can potentially speed things up, or at the very least intensify it. Whether polysyndeton slows down or speeds up your writing depends on the particular context.
Either way, the use of polysyndeton creates more distance between the items in a series and usually results in emphasis being placed on each item individually.
When Polysyndeton Speeds Things Up and Hammers Away
If the series is being read quickly, as when the commas are omitted, the individual emphasis on each item can result in a hammering effect that can ratchet up the energy of the passage.
For example: “She punched and pinched and poked and prodded and whacked and smacked and flicked and in sundry other ways taunted her victims until they either cried out or ran away.”
Compare: “She punched, pinched, poked, prodded, whacked, smacked, flicked, and in sundry other ways taunted her victims until they either cried out or ran away.”
A writer could employ either of the two sentences above, and different writers might prefer one to the other, but my own feeling is that the use of polysyndeton in the first variant makes the sentence more forceful and energetic thanks to the hammering effect. The polysyndeton hammers each item in the series, emphasizing each item individually.
But beware. Because literary devices usually stretch language beyond its basic, plain, literal, or commonly accepted use, they often involve the risk of stretching too far. The examples above list seven specific items in the series, followed by a more generalized eighth item (“sundry other ways”) that caps them off. Some readers might feel that seven or eight items is too many, in which case the polysyndeton only further exhausts the already tired reader.
Here is a milder use of polysyndeton that I employed in three lines from a humorous sonnet that I wrote about lawnmowing: “The earwigs who ignored me I did kill, / and clumps of dirt and rocks and sticks I hurled / With mighty force in all directions wide!” Dirt, rocks, and sticks are only three items, which makes the series much easier to digest, yet three, connected by two ands, is enough to create the emphatic effect. (The post with the lawnmowing sonnet can be found here.)
This hammering at regular intervals can also convey a sense of impatience, or it might merely reflect the colloquial nature of some people’s speech.
Note that in many literary devices, especially those involving repetition, it is often preferable to have at least three occurrences of whatever is being repeated. The use of three occurrences firmly establishes the rhythm or pattern of the device employed. Two can be sufficient, but often results in a weak effect or in a diffuse, inchoate pattern.
Polysyndeton requires only two occurrences of the repeated conjunction to work effectively, but this minimal use of polysyndeton demands at least three items in the list, because only then can the conjunction be stated at least twice to connect the three listed items.
For example: “To pass the time, we watched movies and read books.” No polysyndeton there. Two items separated by a single and does not reach the minimum threshold.
Compare: “To pass the time, we watched movies and read books and played all kinds of games.” With three items listed and two ands between them, you have breached the threshold of polysyndeton.
Incidentally, this is the kind of sentence that elementary school teachers might not approve of. Read the same sentence without polysyndeton: “To pass the time, we watched movies, read books, and played all kinds of games.” Elementary school teachers would probably approve of this sentence, though to my ears it sounds a little more bland than the version with the polysyndeton.
I have nothing against elementary school teachers. I am simply pointing out that they tend to teach the simple, plain, literal use of language at the basic, introductory level, language that is often mistakenly thought of as “normal” or “standard.” The same can probably be said of most high school teachers or even of many instructors of introductory college writing. Beginning students have to start somewhere, and the basics are the most proper place to start.
But literary devices often stretch language beyond the basics. They can achieve richer effects than the basic forms, though at a greater risk of stoking someone’s disapproval. Ironically, though they are sometimes considered grammatically incorrect, they are far more common, normal, and standard than many people realize.
Notice from the above examples that the hammering effect of polysyndeton does not always violently hammer, but sometimes gently taps. It is often subtle. Consequently, the writer must make a subjective, intuitive decision about whether polysyndeton adds anything of worth to a passage listing a series of items. Why draw attention to the form and distract from the substance if little or nothing of value is gained?
Different writers and readers will probably disagree on the value of polysyndeton, as on any other literary device. Where some see beauty or find additional pleasure in a particular use of polysyndeton, others might see unnecessary clutter and distraction. They might even find it irritating.
So know thyself and know thine audience and be aware of the risks you are taking when trying to push your writing to a more sophisticated level via literary devices.
When Polysyndeton Slows Things Down, as in the Scriptures
In cases where the polysyndeton is slowing down the reading of the passage, especially when the additional ands do not replace the commas but are used together with them, or when additional ands begin new sentences, then the polysyndeton can add a sense of formality and dignity. Perhaps for this reason we find so much polysyndeton in the scriptures.
In fact, polysyndeton is probably the most commonly used literary device in the scriptures. Open the Bible (KJV), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Pearl of Great Price to almost any page, and there is a good chance that you will find at least one example of polysyndeton. (The LDS canon represents the only scriptures with which I am familiar to a significant degree, but I would not be surprised if scriptures from non-Western cultures are also rich with literary devices like polysyndeton.)
Following are some salient examples.
“And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” (Genesis 22:8–12, KJV.)
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, KJV.)
“And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land, and became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war—yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war.” (Jarom 1:8, Book of Mormon.)
“But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work.” (Helaman 3:14, Book of Mormon.)
“Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation.” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:64.)
If you think some of the above examples are heavy, now brace yourself for some real mega-whoppers.
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months. And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:1–8, KJV.)
“And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me. Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words. And we did take our tents and whatsoever things were possible for us, and did journey in the wilderness for the space of many days. And after we had journeyed for the space of many days we did pitch our tents. And my people would that we should call the name of the place Nephi; wherefore, we did call it Nephi. And all those who were with me did take upon them to call themselves the people of Nephi. And we did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses. And the Lord was with us; and we did prosper exceedingly; for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance. And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind. And I, Nephi, had also brought the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass; and also the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord, according to that which is written. And it came to pass that we began to prosper exceedingly, and to multiply in the land.” (2 Nephi 5:6–13, Book of Mormon.)
“And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them? And behold, the glory of the Lord was upon Moses, so that Moses stood in the presence of God, and talked with him face to face. And the Lord God said unto Moses: For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me. And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth. And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten. And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many.” (Moses 1:27–34, Pearl of Great Price.)
If any of the above examples seem more diluted than any of the others, that fact illustrates another principle relating to polysyndeton, namely that the closer the conjunctions are concentrated together, the stronger will be the effect of the polysyndeton.
Keep in mind that smaller examples of polysyndeton fill the scriptures. The examples probably run at least into the hundreds, perhaps even into the thousands.
Other Aspects of Polysyndeton
I find that polysyndeton often captures the jumpy, leapfrogging nature of my expanding thoughts as one item makes me think of another item, which in turn makes me think of a third, and then a fourth, etc. Perhaps because each item initially seems to be the last, I place an and in front of it, but before I can manage to stop the list with a final period, my brain conjures up yet another item, which I feel compelled to tack on to the end of my growing list, again with the help of an and. In this manner, from one lily pad to another, I leap across one and after another and employ polysyndeton without consciously intending to.
Arthur Quinn, who wrote one of the most helpful little books about literary devices, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase (though I think his book contains a few errors), seems to describe this tendency when he writes, “Sometimes the polysyndeton gives the sense of an ever lengthening catalogue of roughly equal members.”
Hence why polysyndeton so smoothly facilitates the literary device of accumulation (or, pardon moi, accumulatio). When those ands repeat at the beginning of successive clauses or phrases, they easily embrace anaphora as well. Put them at the end, and you might get epistrophe, or in the middle, mesodiplosis. Polysyndeton can accompany and enhance a variety of other literary devices. But a discussion of those other devices will have to wait their turn for future blog posts.
By capturing and connecting thought after thought, one by one, into a mental train as those thoughts emerge from the murky tunnel of the writer’s mind, polysyndeton can help to reveal the writing process in real time by reflecting the evolving and accumulating thoughts of the writer as he or she keeps adding onto them, even while still in mid-sentence. Here we face the danger of sprawling, of course, but such exploratory sprawling of a brilliant mind at work on great ideas might be exactly what some readers most enjoy in your writing.
If you are an essayist trying to preserve not only the substance of your thoughts, but also the process by which those thoughts emerged from your mind as you meandered from one thought to another, it might be a good idea not to edit out all the polysyndetons during revisions. Just make sure that the polysyndetons genuinely flow and do not come across as excessively artificial contrivances or as the sloppy carelessness characteristic of first drafts.
Quinn mentions that in listing the series, you can arrange the items in ascending or descending importance, or you can move between the general and the specific, or you can relate different items in terms of space or time.
He also points out “that the indefiniteness of ‘and’ envelops biblical narratives . . . in mystery” and that “[o]ccasionally, in the Bible and elsewhere, repeated polysyndetons have an almost hypnotic power.” I think that this hypnotic power results from the rhythm, unpredictable spontaneity, and potentially limitless open-endedness of items connected in a list by a repeating conjunction—which most of the time will be the conjunction and.
Although I have focused primarily on the repetition of and because it is the most common conjunction repeated, the repetition of any conjunction qualifies under most definitions of polysyndeton.
Note, however, that some sources use the term paradiastole to define the repetition of “disjunctive conjunctions” or “disjunctions,” which separate elements rather than conjoin them, or which negate a string of elements rather than affirm them. Under this definition, paradiastole can be seen as a subset of polysyndeton.
But note again, however, that the OED, which I consider the most authoritative source for word definitions, does not define paradiastole this way.
That is another tricky aspect of literary devices—definitions abound. Often they overlap to one degree or another. Occasionally a single term covers multiple definitions, or multiple terms cover a single definition. Sometimes different sources contradict each other. Although I usually defer to the OED, sometimes even its definitions are not satisfactory, at least in my subjective judgment.
I find the distinction between conjunctions and disjunctions helpful. Within the context of polysyndeton, I generally reserve the term paradiastole for polysyndetons involving repeated negations, such as neithers, nors, and even nots, though sometimes it is extended to eithers and ors. I will not delve any further into the negating, disjunctive branch of polysyndeton here, but will save that discussion for a later blog post about paradiastole.
In the meantime, here are some scriptural polysyndetons (or paradiastoles, if you prefer) that involve the conjunction or, but without the element of negation.
“And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth . . .” (Deuteronomy 14:26.)
“Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:17.)
“And he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; . . .” (1 Samuel 2:14.)
Here is an example of polysyndeton involving the repetition of both or and and:
“And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29–30; compare Matthew 19:29 and Luke 18:29–30.) (This example also contains a zeugma—another device that will have to wait its turn for a blog post of its own.)
Keep in mind that a modern writer, especially one hoping for a good grade on a writing assignment in a high school class or a college course, probably cannot get away with everything that scriptural authors got away with long ago, at least not without incurring some modern penalty.
Never mind that those ancient authors produced some of the most inspiring and durable literature of all time. In some circles nowadays, no good literary device goes unpunished.
Which reminds me of another handy principle to guide our use of writing tools. Sometimes it is best to plan for the rule, not the exception; to master the fundamentals and to grow through them rather than to try to bypass them from the outset; and to have some valid reason other than mere gimmickry for bending our language beyond the basics.
But on the other hand, if you never stretch yourself, you will never grow.
So if you feel so inclined, give polysyndeton a try. It can add to your writing a sense of style and personality and attitude and panache and joy and happiness and excitement and humor and redundancy and tediousness and compositional pleasure and who knows what else.
But if Miss Thistlewhistle Standardstickler or Professor Gary Grammarian Rulepontificator docks your grade for it, don’t blame me.
 "polysyndeton, n.". OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/147397?redirectedFrom=polysyndeton (accessed May 06, 2017).
 Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2008), 963.
 The American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004), 1081.
 Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1982), 11.
 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1898), 208.
 Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 264.
 J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 729.
 Bernard Dupriez, A Dictionary of Literary Devices, trans. Albert W. Halsall (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 348.
 http://rhetoric.byu.edu/ (accessed May 6, 2017).
 Quinn, Figures of Speech, 13.
 Ibid. at 11.
 Ibid. at 11–12.
 Ibid. at 12.