In writing, hypotaxis refers to the use of subordinate clauses in sentences to express individual but related thoughts within the sentence. It is also used when the writer is conveying logical, temporal, or causal relationships between pieces of information in the sentence. As a literary device, the subordinate clauses give precise meaning to the main thought expressed by the sentence. Hypotactic writing is also effective as a tool of persuasion or argument.
The term hypotaxis is derived from the Greek word meaning “subjection.” A subordinate clause is subject to an independent clause, in the sense that it helps define the precise meaning of the clause. “The flowers were blooming, we sang songs” are independent clauses. If the first independent clause is changed to “Because the flowers were blooming,” it becomes a subordinate clause that explains to the reader the reason for the singing.
A hypotactic writing style allows a sentence to provide a great deal of background and information about what is being said and why. Instead of alternating simple and compound sentences, hypotaxis relies on more complex sentences to explain a thought or observation. The use of subordinate clauses amplifies the central impression.
For example, in Notes of a Native Son, American writer James Baldwin uses it to describe his father’s dealings with white social workers and bill collectors. “It was almost always my mother who dealt with them, for my father's temper, which was at the mercy of his pride, was never to be trusted. It was clear that he felt their very presence in his home to be a violation: this was conveyed by his carriage, almost ludicrously stiff, and by his voice, harsh and vindictively polite.”
The use of hypotaxis can allow a writer to include ideas about time within a description to make it more explicit. American novelist William Faulkner, known for his hypotactic sentences, employs one to describe a period of recuperation. “He did not feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in that supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body's pleasure instead of the body thrall to time's headlong course.”
Hypotaxis is the opposite of parataxis, which uses short, independent clauses. Parataxis is a more direct style of writing and sometimes leaves shades of meaning to the reader. It can also forcefully covey an idea with few words. Roman emperor Julius Caesar’s famous phrase “I came, I saw, I conquered” is an example of parataxis.