Polysyndeton, Asyndeton, and the Rhetoric of Style

Thursday, October 4, 2012 - 2:44 pm

Polysyndeton, Asyndeton, and the Rhetoric of Style

Each day of the week we pair a photograph with a quotation and upload it to Instagram. Oftentimes, these lines are inspired by something our staff or our audiences are reading and discussing. We hope to offer deeper reflection and inspiration into your social media lives. This Monday, I drew my inspiration from a class I’m taking called Rhetorical Stylistics:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

—1 Corinthians 13:2 (ESV)

I chose this verse from the New Testament after learning about a stylistic figure called a polysyndeton. It’s a figure of speech that uses many conjunctions between clauses to slow down the rhythm of a sentence. It gives you time to pause and reflect, and deliver you to a different place for the conclusion — maybe to accept it or be surprised by it. There’s also a feeling of drama, of building towards the conclusion. The Bible has a wealth of beautiful polysyndetons like the one above.
This verse opens with a clear “If —> Then” statement so you know the conclusion is coming, but did you realize how bold, surprising, and impactful it would be? Imagine if the verse had been more direct, less stylized. Permit me to play with this sacred text for a minute to imagine a world without polysyndetons:

I am nothing without love even with prophetic powers to understand all mysteries and knowledge, and faith to remove mountains.

Without the polysyndeton, my translation is thin, the meaning diluted; “prophetic powers” and “all faith” don’t look like such awful dilemmas in this order after all!

“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
—Julius Augustus Caesar

Caesar, on the other hand, left out all of the conjunctions to speed up the verse when announcing his swift victory. This is the asyndeton form.

Frederick Douglass Artwork
Frederick Douglass, a master orator and statesman, effectively used this device in many speeches, including “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

It’s truly rousing, you can feel the fire building in your chest as he moves through the “thin veil” just reading it, let alone hearing it. Many scholars argue that employing similar rhetorical devices as present in the Bible was one key to Douglass’s rhetorical mastery. Like the Bible, the Declaration of Independence was considered unassailable. Imagine the sound of his voice then, to hear the man thunder away at the words of this precious document using style to take aim and make his point.
Image of Frederick Douglass by Christopher Clark/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

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was an associate producer at On Being.

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