I. What is an Polysyndeton?
Polysyndeton (pronounced pah-lee-sin-de-ton) is a literary device that uses multiple repetitions of the same conjunction (and, but, if, etc), most commonly the word “and.”
Polysyndeton comes from Greek meaning many connected.
II. Examples of Polysyndeton
“And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House!” (Howard Dean, January 2004)
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers.” (the U.S. Postal Service Creed)
“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 do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
In these examples, notice how the speaker/writer repeats a single conjunction to string together multiple statements or list-items. In fact, in the 3rd example there is a kind of double polysyndeton, in which the word “and” is repeatedly followed by “if.” (Both of those words are conjunctions, so their repetition is a form of polysyndeton.)
NOTE: Polysyndeton is used extensively in Shakespeare and in the King James Bible. These two sources have profoundly shaped the modern English language, meaning we’re used to hearing polysyndeton in all forms of elevated speech – even if most people aren’t aware that this device has a name.
One reason why polysyndeton is so common in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, may be its linguistic origin. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, which uses the word “and” much more frequently than we do in English, especially at the beginning of sentences.
III. The Importance of Using Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton has several possible purposes:
1. Emphasize each of the items in a list
A writer may decide that they want the reader to pay particular attention to each individual item in the list, rather than stringing them all together into one.
2. Add rhythm
Polysyndeton can give the whole passage a very pleasing rhythm (think of the conjunctions as upbeats, and the first syllable of each item as a downbeat – the song lyrics in Section V will help make this clear).
3. Create a “childlike” voice
Young children often string their sentences together into long run-on sentences using the word “and.” Occasionally, an author will use this to create the impression of a young narrator.
IV. Examples of Polysyndeton in Literature
“If there be cords, or knives, Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure it.”
(William Shakespeare, Othello III.3)
Here’s one of the many examples of polysyndeton in Shakespeare. Because of this rhetorical construction, each of the items in this list of horrors gets its own moment of emphasis and adds its own weight to the hellish nightmare being described.
“There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway.” (Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son)
Here, the use of polysyndeton is combined with a sharp juxtaposition. Normally, the items in a polysendetic list are all of one type (as in example 1), but here they are all sorts of different things, from summer-houses to dunghills. This emphasizes the chaos and different scenarios found at the “door of the Railway.” In addition, it creates a whimsical atmosphere and may contribute to a childlike voice.
“Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness.”
(Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
Maya Angelou also used polysyndeton frequently in her writing. Here again, the effect is to emphasize each item in the list.
V. Examples of Polysyndeton in Pop Culture
“Wherever I may roam, o’er land or sea or foam…”
(Show Me the Way to Go Home – folk song)
Here the polysyndeton gets a little extra push from a little clever wordplay – the word “o’er” sounds a lot like “or,” which extends the effect. When sung, the words “land…sea…foam” fall on the downbeat – an example of the rhythmic use of polysyndeton.
“Boats and tanks and planes…kings and queens and generals!”
(The Clash – Tommy Gun)
More rhythmic use of polysyndeton.
“And the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, and the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us.”
(Lieutenant Aldo Raine – Inglorious Basterds)
Here we have polysyndeton used to emphasize each of the items in the list. But there are actually two lists – one nested inside the other – that both use polysyndeton. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) is listing how the Germans will respond to his men. But inside the first item in that list is a list of his men’s weapons. The polysyndeton is doubled up and its effect is enhanced.
VI. Similar Devices
This is the precise opposite of polysyndeton. With asyndeton, the writer/speaker is removing a conjunction where there otherwise would be one. Despite the fact that they’re opposites, though, asyndeton has an effect very similar to polysyndeton – by breaking the usual grammatical rules, it calls attention to the sentence and brings greater emphasis to each of the items in the list. Here are some examples:
“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
“I came, and I saw, and I conquered.”
“Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs?” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet V.1)
“Where be your gibes now, or your gambols, or your songs?”
When using asyndeton, it’s important to remember that you are usually doing something that is technically grammatically incorrect. The sentence “I came, I saw, I conquered,” for example, contains two comma splices and might be marked wrong if it appeared in a class essay today. Nonetheless, it is one of the most famous and enduring sentences ever uttered. Polysyndeton, by contrast, is usually grammatically correct.
So, similar to polysyndeton, use asyndeton very sparingly in research papers, term papers, and other formal essays. In the case of polysyndeton, you have to be careful because it may seem unnecessary and stylistic; in the case of asyndeton, on the other hand, you have the same problem plus the problem of grammatical inaccuracy.