A clever-sounding Greek word can make the difference.

Polysyndeton is when a number of conjunctions are used one after the other, close together in sentences. The term comes from a Greek word meaning ‘many’ and ‘bound together.’ An example might be, ‘she jumped up and ran to the door and flung it open.’ The technique can achieve a number of effects: in the illustration above it suggests an almost childlike enthusiasm (it’s no coincidence that ‘and’ is the first conjunction children learn and so it often conveys that sense of naivety). It can also increase or slow down pace depending on how it is used.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, uses polysyndeton to particularly good effect. The novel, amongst other things, is about excess. When impressionable Nick Carraway goes to one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time, he is overwhelmed by the luxury of his neighbour’s hospitality: ‘By seven o’ clock,’ Nick tells us, ‘the orchestra has arrived – no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. Six conjunctions (seven if you count the one between the drums) in fairly quick succession reinforce the sense of wonder Nick feels at the magnificence of the orchestra. Whilst his admiration is evident in the phrase ‘whole pitful’, the sheer number of ‘ands’ joining the inventory of instruments, emphasises his spontaneous delight. Further amazement at the luxury of Gatsby’s house is conveyed when Nick and Daisy are shown ‘dressing rooms and poolrooms and bathrooms with sunken baths.’ Here the polysyndeton, coupled with the pluralisation, invites the reader to share Nick’s wonder: the list comes out in a breathless rush, leaving us no time to pause, and hence we too feel a sense of exhausted awe.

In his ‘Play for Voices’, Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas uses polysyndeton to establish the ambitious scope of people’s dreams: ‘Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.’ In the narrow little community of Llareggub, where people live restricted and predictable lives, their only escape is through fantasy. By using polysyndeton, Thomas alerts us to the fact that whilst by day people lack freedom, at night their aspirations can hold no bounds.

So, experimenting with lists in our own writing – we could use ‘but’ and ‘or’ as well as ‘and’ – will help subliminally convey meaning to reinforce the power of our words.


StyleGill ThompsonComment