Friday, July 8, 2011

To and or not to and; that is a writer's question.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

. . . We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

I hope, as a follower of this blog, you can now identify why Lincoln’s words are especially powerful and alive. One reason is his use of anaphora to begin three successive clauses with identical language: we cannot. A second reason is parallel construction (See posts for February 28, 2010; September 10, 2010; March 18, 2011; and April 1, 2011): We cannot verb, we cannot verb, we cannot verb.

One other writing option that Lincoln employs is asyndeton, the omission of conjunctions between clauses, phrases, or words. By omitting the conjunction and between consecrate and we, Lincoln de-emphasizes his three clauses as items in a list and emphasizes the gravitas of Gettysburg itself and the sacrifices that men made there.

President John F. Kennedy achieved a similar effect with his own use of asyndeton:

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

Each sacrifice that Kennedy calls for has equal, solemn weight. The phrases are not items in a list; they are an escalating set of steps that may lead to war itself in order to preserve freedom. Kennedy has also made excellent use of parallel construction by repeating the pattern: verb- the adjective any-direct object.

Lest you believe that asyndeton is only for the presidents and serious occasions, here is another, lighter example of its use:

This is of course the big event of show business and the atmosphere here is pure electricity. But as a television show, it does tend to go slightly ‘off the boil,’ particularly as we drift into the third and fourth hour. What can we do about it? Firstly, winners, when you make your speech, it's a good tip to remember the three Gs: Be gracious, be grateful, get off. Paul Hogan, Remarks at the 59th Annual Academy Awards.

The opposite of asyndeton is polysyndeton, the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses. For example, from Ernest Hemingway:

I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said, ‘I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Bay and she was all right only she was full of water. Hemingway, “After the Storm”

Why would Hemingway choose such a jumble of words strung together with the conjunction and? What effect does he achieve by doing so? Hemingway re-creates the confusion of simultaneous action by choosing polysyndeton. Using clauses and phrases strung together underscores the confusion caused by catastrophes, in this case, the trauma of a dead man and a terrible storm.

Genesis 1: 24-25 of the King James Version employs polysyndeton with a somewhat different effect:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (

The use of polysyndeton in this Biblical passage underscores the simultaneous creation of animals, reptiles, and other living creature in a moment.

Writing Challenge:

Make purposeful use of asyndeton and polysyndeton. You may wish to imitate any of the examples offered, using entirely different words to create your own message while following the word order of the original authors. Or you may choose to create two identical passages except for the use of polysyndeton in the second version. Note the difference in overall effect between the two. For example:

Students should carefully consider what to pack when preparing to leave home for college. A laptop computer, cell phone, iPad, iPod, the tattered, worn teddy bear are worthy, even essential, items.

Students should carefully consider what to pack when preparing to leave home for college. A laptop computer and a cell phone and an iPad and an iPod and the tattered and worn teddy bear are worthy and even essential items.

Which one of the sentence pairs above has the greater emotional impact? What figure(s) of speech lead to that outcome?

Reading Challenge:

Read a book I have often mentioned in these posts: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Note the use of asyndeton and polysyndeton, especially in the first story in the collection, “The Things They Carried.”

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): More Commonly Confused Words: Grisly and Grizzly

Hemingway’s character, in the quoted passage above, has made a grisly discovery: the body of a man. With any luck, the man was not killed by a grizzly. Had the man been gnawed and gnashed on by a grizzly bear, it’s unlikely that anyone could have recognized him and quite likely that someone would have coughed his cookies at his feet after such a grisly or gruesome and revolting sight.