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What Is Polysyndeton?

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  • Written By: Emily Daw
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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Polysyndeton is a rhetorical device in which a passage uses more conjunctions than are grammatically required, typically between every item in a series rather than before only the last item. For instance, the sentence "We saw pythons and cobras and mambas and boas" contains three conjunctions instead of placing commas between the first three items in the list. The opposite of this rhetorical device is asyndeton, in which the last item of a series has no conjunction, such as "We saw pythons, cobras, mambas, boas." The most common conjunctions in English are "and," "or," "nor," "but" and "so." Polysyndeton can be employed to great effect in a wide variety of rhetorical contexts, making it a commonly used figure of speech in both prose and poetry.

The word "polysyndeton" comes from the Greek poly, meaning "many," and sydetos, meaning "bound together." The use of polysyndeton often either speeds up or slows down a sentence's tempo. The added conjunctions can speed up the flow of the sentence by adding a measure of excitement or spontaneity, as if spoken by someone who has not already planned how many items would be in the list. On the other hand, especially when used with commas, polysyndeton can give a sense of plodding to a sentence, such as "While working on my master's thesis, I ate, and wrote, and slept, and ate, and wrote, and slept, and that was all I did."

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The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, published in 1611, is remarkable for its frequent use of polysyndeton. Of the 31 verses in Genesis 1, for instance, 29 begin with "and," and one begins with "so." The word "and" occurs 98 times out of 797 words in the chapter, or approximately one out of every eight words.

This usage closely corresponds to the Hebrew from which the Old Testament was translated. The Hebrew waw, typically translated "and" in the KJV, serves not only as a coordinate conjunction, it also serves as a transition word at the beginning of sentences or even books. Many recent English translations of the Bible omit many instances of waw or substitute a different transitional word or phrase.

Polysyndeton, because of its association with the Bible, can also give an air of religiosity to a text. One example of this can be found in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which spoofs the King James Version's use of polysyndeton. A cleric is called upon to read from the fictitious Book of Armaments, from which he reads a long, polysedetic list of foods, which prompts another character to interrupt the cleric and tell him to skip the rest of the list in the interest of time.

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