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Rhetorical devices: Asyndeton - examples & definition

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What is Asyndeton?

You may have heard the term, but exactly what is asyndeton? From the Greek meaning 'no things that bind', it's the exact opposite of Polysyndeton, i.e. not using any conjunctions at all). Normally we say 'a, b, c, d and e' but asyndeton leaves out the 'and' (or another conjunction such as or / but / for / not / nor) and says instead 'a,b,c,d,e'.

"Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”

"Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom"

“I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors - Barack Obama

The deliberate lack of conjunctions in asyndeton speeds up the sentence without distracting the listener. It can also create an expectation where the listener feels as if the list could just keep going on and on, as in the following quote from the movie 'Forrest Gump':

“Anyway, like I was saying, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil
it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep
fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp,
shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich
. That . . . that's about it"
– Bubba, (Forrest Gump)

Like polysyndeton, it also gives a sense of equality to the things in the list. Take a famous example of asyndeton, Julius Caesar's “I came, I saw, I conquered.” and compare it with “I came, I saw, and I conquered.” The second statement isn’t nearly as strong, merely listing three things and the order in which they happened. The use of 'and' interrupts the flow, slowing down the reader and finalizing the list (i.e. Caesar didn’t do anything else).

When asyndeton is used, it clearly implies the ease with which he defeated his enemy. By giving each of the sentences equal weight, it implies that the conquest was no more difficult and took no longer than arriving or seeing.

Asyndeton also gives a sense of incompleteness — as if more of the same exists beyond the edge of the sentence, and you've stopped before you've arrived at the point where you'd conclude by using 'and.':

"Hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and the nation's freight handler, stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders" - Carl Sandburg (writing about Chicago)

"Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed"

"With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together knowing that we will be free one day" - Martin Luther King

"All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into darkness" - Winston Churchill

"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" - JF Kennedy, Inaugural Address

So . . . . . how can you use asyndeton in a presentation, speech or your writing? Use it when you want to quote a few things but imply there is much more that you haven't mentioned. Let's say you want to mention a number of things the company did in the previous year. Your initial draft might contain, "In order to get back into profit we had to close a factory, reorganize transport, reduce spending across the company and suffer redundancies."

The use of the 'and' before redundancies implies that it is a complete list. Saying, "In order to get back into profit we had to close a factory, reorganize transport, reduce spending across the company, suffer redundancies . . . ." and then pausing slightly after the final word, you create a sense of incompleteness, implying that there was also a lot more that happened which you aren't going to go into.

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