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Rhetorical devices: Polysyndeton - examples & definition

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What is Polysyndeton?

Normally when we speak about three or more things in a list, group or series, we separate each of them with a comma, and then use the conjunction 'and' immediately before the last thing in the list, e.g. a,b,c,d and e. However, there are two rhetorical techniques that deliberately break this grammatical 'rule' to achieve a particular effect: polysyndeton and asyndeton.

So exactly what is Polysyndeton? It comes from the Greek meaning 'many things that bind' and deliberately and repetitively uses 'and' (or another conjunction such as or / but / for / not / nor) between each of the words in the list, e.g. 'a and b and c and d and e.' Let's look at some polysyndeton examples:

"And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had" - Josh 7:24

"When men drink, they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends. Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine" - Aristophanes

"Not snow, nor rain, nor heat nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed" - Herodotus

" . . . a new world of law - where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved . . ." President JF Kennedy

The main purpose of polysyndeton is to slow down the pace of the sentence so the listener can take in the information and by doing so, emphasize the words in the list or series. Compare: “New product X is flexible, fast, adaptable and inexpensive,” with “New product X is flexible and fast and adaptable and inexpensive.” If said in measured tones, the latter puts far more emphasis and concentration on each of the new product's winning characteristics.

It can also be used to emphasize the length of a list, as if the speaker is mentally quoting from one:

"'Tender as my years may be,' said Caspian, 'I believe I understand the slave trade from within quite as well as your Sufficiency. And I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armour or anything else worth having'." - CS Lewis ('The Voyage of the Dawn Treader')

“It’s got awesome security. And the right apps. It’s got everything from Cocoa and the graphics and it’s got core animation built in and it’s got the audio and the video that OSX is famous for. It’s got all the stuff we want” - Steve Jobs (Macworld 2007 Keynote Address)

"Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?" - John Cleese ('The Life of Brian").

Polysyndeton can also imply a combination without explicitly stating it. Compare 'Alan, Sandra, Jo and Mike' with 'Alan and Sandra and Jo and Mike'. The former indicates four individuals, brought together for some reason. The latter indicates a cohesive group. Used like this, polysyndeton can be used to indicate a collective without actually naming it.

However, because it is used so much in the Bible, it can come across (especially when used with verbs or actions) as sounding biblical, and almost slightly hypnotic. Take the following examples:

"And the German 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. And when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be thoughts of us that it tortures them with" Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine (from the movie Inglorious Basterds)

"She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands" - Walter Pater (writing about the Mona Lisa)

Finally, here are a few examples from President Obama:

"Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions;greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction" . . .

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history . . ."

"We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories . . .”

“You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington . . ."

"Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year . . . "

So . . . . . how can you use this? Simply look for any point in your initial script which contains a list or series or grouping (did you notice the polysyndeton there?), or somewhere you could introduce one. Let's say you wanted to make the point that everyone in the company was going to have to change the way they did things. You might originally have something like, "Every single department in the company will have to change."

This can be easily adapted to: "It means your department will have to change, regardless of whether you work in production or transport or finance or sales or marketing or anywhere else . . ."

OR . . . . .

"It means your department will have to change. That includes production and transport and finance and sales and marketing and everywhere else . . ."

The repetitive use of the conjunctions 'or' and 'and' give a much better sense of all-inclusiveness and completeness.

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