A tale of two words


This post is about a tiny ubiquitous word and a large infrequent word. The tiny ubiquitous word is and. The large infrequent word is polysyndeton. How do they relate?

In literature (and other stylized forms of language, like speeches, songs, and play or film dialogue), polysyndeton is a device in which conjunctions, like and, are repeated in close succession to produce a particular stylistic effect. Take this passage from the King James Bible (Joshua 7:24):

And Joshua, and all of 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.”

One of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy, makes heavy use of polysyndeton in his writing. From Blood Meridian:

“They rode on into the darkness and the moonblanched waste lay before them cold and pale and the moon sat in a ring overhead and in that ring lay a mock moon with its own cold gray and nacre seas. […] The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles.”

From The Road:

“He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.”

In linguistics, polysyndetic coordination is a construction where all conjuncts are linked by coordinators (in English, these are and, but, or, nor).

On the opposite side, there’s (literary) asyndeton – where words/phrases in a list are separated only by commas; and (linguistic) asyndetic coordination – where the coordinate construction lacks an overt coordinator. (Both versions “lack an overt coordinator” in fact, but the focus on commas is unique to the literary definition, since punctuation is irrelevant for speech.)

I would delightfully dive into a detailed breakdown of how coordinator types and positions vary across languages[1], but I’ll spare you that tangent today. One relevant factoid is the following. Many languages (like English) allow coordinator omission in a multiple coordinate construction, where either:

  1. all but one coordinator are dropped, e.g., I’ll have beans and rice and cheese and avocado → I’ll have beans, rice, cheese, and avocado; or
  2. all coordinators are dropped, e.g., I’ll have beans and rice and cheese → I’ll have beans, rice, cheese

Not only does the grammar “allow” it, but it is in fact the unmarked (i.e. default) way of saying or writing lists, such that the other way – with all coordinators present – has its own special fancy term.

However, some languages don’t allow this omission. Ponapean, a Micronesian language, requires that the coordinator oh (‘and’) remain present in every instance:

Soulik oh Ewalt oh Casiano oh Damian pahn doadoahk lakapw

‘Soulik, Ewalt, Casiano and Damian will work tomorrow’[2]

I’ll end with a quote from Henry Miller (another of my favorite authors), who requisitions asyndeton as part of his stylistic flair. From Tropic of Cancer:

“Tania is a fever too – les voies urinaires, Café de la Liberté, Place des Vosges, bright neckties on the Boulevard Montparnasse, dark bathrooms, Porto Sec, Abdullah cigarettes, the adagio sonata Pathétique, aural amplificators, anecdotal seances, burnt sienna breasts, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromegaly, cancer and delirium, warm veils, poker chips…”


[1] If you’re very interested, Haspelmath has a terrific (although quite technical) typological survey. See Haspelmath, M. (2007). Coordination. In Language typology and syntactic description, volume II: complex constructions. Ed. By T. Shopen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-51.

[2] Haspelmath, M. (2007), p.13

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