Rhetorical Devices: Asyndeton

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.

Device: Asyndeton

Origin: From the Greek ἀσύνδετον (asindeton), meaning “unconnected”.

In plain English: The omission of conjunctions such as “and”, “or”, “for” and “but” from a series of related phrases or clauses.

Effect:

  • Asyndeton adds speed and rhythm to the words.
  • It leaves an impression that the list is not complete. For example, the sentence, “I play hockey, baseball and football.” conveys the notion that I play those three sports. The sentence, “I play, hockey, baseball, football.” conveys that I am an avid sportsman and leaves open the possibility (even the likelihood) that I play other sports as well.
  • There is more drama to the sentence without the conjunction between the final two phrases or clauses.
  • In an asyndeton with two phrases, there can be a feeling of parallelism, synonymity or emphasis. Compare: She’s a genius and a star. with She’s a genius, a star.

Notes:

  • Aristotle said that asyndeton is more effective in oratory than in writing.
  • The example from Julius Caesar below is also an anaphora; the example from Abraham Lincoln below is also an epistrophe. A single sentence can incorporate more than one rhetorical device.
  • If you want to use asyndeton to convey the impression that the list is not complete, your voice should not drop with the last phrase; rather, it should remain level or even rise slightly.
  • Asyndeton is the structural opposite of polysyndeton.

Examples:

I came, I saw, I conquered.”

— Julius Caesar, shortly after the Battle of Zela, 47 BC

———

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“

— Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863

———

Duty, Honor, Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”

— General Douglas MacArthur, West Point Academy, New York, 12 May 1962

———

“The union’s survival, its very existence, sent out a signal to all Hispanics that we were fighting for our dignity, that we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us, the poorest among us. The message was clear. If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere: in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.

— Cesar Chavez, Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, 9 November 1984

———

“We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line.”

— Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992)

———

“Let’s take a look at the side. It’s really thin. It’s thinner than any smart phone out there, at 11.6 millimeters. Thinner than the Q, thinner than the BlackJack, thinner than all of them. It’s really nice.”

— Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007 Keynote Address

About John Zimmer

I am passionate about public speaking and helping others improve their public speaking and presentation skills.
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6 Responses to Rhetorical Devices: Asyndeton

  1. Bob bill says:

    Thanks, really helpful.

  2. Pingback: “It’s Halftime in America” — An Analysis | Manner of Speaking

  3. Pingback: “It’s Halftime in America” — An Analysis | Manner of Speaking

  4. John K says:

    John,

    Your rhetorical devices’ pages are very useful.

    MacArthur’s speech is also textbook material for how pauses and slow, cadenced speech leave lasting impressoins. In the quote above, which took one minute, he used exactly 54 words, or just under one word a second.

    This is glacial compared to our everyday speech where we can rattle off about 300 (!) words per minute. Nevertheless, MacArthur does not make you fall asleep.

    Also, Jack Nicholson is just a damn good actor. Great clip.

    Best regards from Bonn,

    John

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks very much for the detailed comment, John. Your remark about MacArthur is particularly astute. A great example of how less really can be more.

      Cheers!

      John

  5. Pingback: Rhetorical Devices: Polysyndeton | Manner of Speaking

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