I. What is Aposiopesis?
Aposiopesis (pronounced ap-uh-sahy-uh--pee-sis) is when a sentence is purposefully left incomplete or cut off. It’s caused by an inability or unwillingness to continue speaking. This allows the ending to be filled in by the listener’s imagination. In order to show aposiopesis in a sentence, one may use the em dash (--) or ellipsis (…).
The word aposiopesis is derived from the Greek phrase aposiōpaein, meaning “to become totally silent.”
II. Examples of Aposiopesis
Aposiopesis type: audience-respecting
This type of aposiopesis does not to include details or thoughts which may be offensive or unpleasant to readers or listeners. For example, while discussing a court case in front of a jury, a lawyer may state:
After the suspect… Well, you’ve read the court documents. After the heinous crime was completed, the suspect fled the scene.
Aposiopesis type: surprising
This type of aposiopesis does not give information that the audience wants or expects to receive. This gains the audience’s interest in the information that will later be revealed. For example, it is often used in newscasts:
On tonight’s newscast, we will begin to discover what happens when two animals become unlikely friends… More on this story on The Evening News at 8.
Aposiopesis type: emotional
Similar to emphatic aposiopesis, emotive aposiopesis does not finish a sentence due to an emotional outburst. This type of aposiopesis does not finish an idea in order to express that it is beyond description. Imagine an angry man who is so angry he can’t even think of what he wants to do to express that anger:
I’m so angry, I could-- I could--!
Aposiopesis type: transition
Used mostly in speech-making, the transition aposiopesis ( or transitio-aposiopesis ) is used to make a transition from one subject to another. By removing the conclusion from one idea, the speaker immediately gains the listeners’ interest in the next section of the speech:
And, in conclusion… Well, enough of that. Let’s move on to the next point.
III. The Importance of Aposiopesis
Aposiopesis may be used to express speechlessness caused by great emotion or passion, such as rage, frustration, or fear. It may also be used to avoid speaking of certain topics or to direct an audience’s attention to a new subject.
IV. Examples of Aposiopesis in Literature
Aposiopesis is used in literature for dramatic effects. It can show that a character is overwhelmed with emotion. Or, it can allow the reader to fill in horrors or threats with their own imaginations. When characters pause due to strong emotion or searching for words, they appear more realistic and believable.
An example of this may be found in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear is so upset he cannot think of proper punishment for his misbehaving daughters:
I will have revenges on you both
That all the world shall-- I will do such things--
What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!
The use of aposiopesis here serves to show that Lear is so angry, he cannot speak clearly or think of specific threats.
Similarly, Mark Twain’s Aunt Polly is overcome with emotion but is unable to complete her thought:
She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“‘Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll--‘
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom.
Aposiopesis has a wide range of uses, but is most common in literature. It is a way of reflecting that a character has become overwhelmed with emotion or passion.
V. Examples of Aposiopesis in Pop Culture
Aposiopesis can be found in pop culture often in dramatic, emotionally-driven scenes.
For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho, Marion Crane and Norman Bates discuss his relationship with his mother, whom Crane believes is abusive. Crane uses aposiopesis in order to say that if she had a mother like his, she would be driven to extremes:
You know, if anyone ever talked to me the way I heard, the way she spoke to you…
Her dramatic pause allows him to keep speaking of his frustrations and serves to charge the scene emotionally.
In a very different example, Mr. Darcy expresses his love to Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice. Overcome with emotion, he can hardly speak:
If, however… your feelings have changed… I would have to tell you, you have bewitched me body and soul, and I love… I love… I love you.
The use of aposiopesis in dialogue gives dramatic characters real-life emotion and vibrancy.
VI. Related Terms
Similar to aposiopesis, paralepsis is the literary term which points out something by appearing to ignore it. Unlike paralepsis, aposiopesis leaves a blank space where the emphasized statement should be. Paralepsis mentions the point but as if in passing. It’s a way of ironically emphasizing something.
When discussing a disagreeable person, it may be polite to omit certain points about him or her.
He’s… Well, he’s… I don’t know how to describe him.
When wishing to focus on the negativity instead, though, paralepsis would be a better option
I don’t want to focus on his bad manners, or his lack of proper hygiene, or his anger issues. I’d much rather focus on his positive traits. Let’s talk about them.
Here, aposiopesis serves to turn focus away from negativity, whereas paralepsis emphasizes them. Although aposiopesis and paralepsis both use disregard as a tool, they can have opposite or drastically different meanings.
Like aposiopesis, anacoluthon is a literary term which includes an interruption of thought, or a pause. Unlike aposiopesis, anacoluthon has a pause which is followed by a new thought that interrupts the previous one or does not follow it logically.
I’m so angry I don’t even know what to do! I might—I might—!
Here, the aposiopesis results from strong anger. The writer never tells just what it is that the speaker is threatening.
I’m so angry I don’t even know what to do—I might—Why do you do this to me?
Although it is the same situation, here, the interruption is followed by a completely different grammatical sentence and subject matter. Rather than continuing to speak of what he might do in anger, the speaker moves to ask a question. While aposiopesis results in a pause, anacoluthon results in a pause followed by a new direction of thought.
VII. In Closing
Aposiopesis is a term where a sentence is purposely left incomplete through the use of an em dash or ellipsis. In real life, aposiopesis may be an expression of strong emotion ranging from anxiety and rage to passion and love. In literature and film, this allows writers to give their characters realistic, believable speech. With a wide range of applications, aposiopesis can be used in everyday speech, serious discourse, great literature, and pop culture alike.