What writer doesn’t like to list things? I know I find myself listing all kinds of things for all sorts of reasons. Here’s a normal way to list things:
She was tired, dirty, hungry, and grouchy.
You have a series of descriptive words, separated by commas, with “and” to connect the final item.
Asyndeton is a series without a conjunction. When you leave out the conjunction, you send a subtle message to the reader, the message that this list may not be conclusive. Here’s an example from Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White:
“Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed.”
You would rightly conclude that Fern loved to do lots of things for Wilbur, not just stroking, feeding, and putting him to bed. You get the feeling the list could go on and on.
This is from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:
“He reads everywhere—in the subway, between acts at plays, at intermissions in Symphony Hall, on picnics, on dates.”
Do you get the feeling, partially because there’s no conjunction, that this guy would read in any number of places?
Polysyndeton is the opposite. It uses a conjunction between every item in the list. Its purpose is to add emphasis, or to show the intense emotion of the speaker. Here’s another example from Charlotte’s Web:
“. . . I don’t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed.”
[Examples taken from pages 27, 29, and 32 of Word Magic for Writers, by Cindy Rogers.]
You get the feeling that Templeton the rat is extremely nervous about what might happen to him if those people transporting him are not careful with him. His emotion is high. If a character said, “I am sick and tired, and I am fed up, and I am ready to send you packing,” the multiple conjunctions would serve to emphasize that character’s emotion, adding to the words themselves. You get the feeling that the words are being said very deliberately and passionately, so you don’t have to tag the dialogue with “she said slowly and deliberately, with great passion.” Those sorts of tags are generally frowned upon. Polysyndeton is one way you can SHOW your character’s passion, without having to TELL the reader about it. Sound good to you? Me too!
Okay, now it’s your turn to give some examples from your own work or to write something new. You might want to find some dialogue in your WIP and rewrite it using asyndeton or polysyndeton. Let’s see some examples! Don’t be shy.