Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Today's word is... asyndeton

I doubt my household is "average." Being a writer, I often discuss topics that most would find out of the ordinary (and some downright frightening).  "How long does it take to dissolve a body in hydrochloric acid?"

The other night a friend of mine came over for dinner, and my wife and I were debating the realistic population density of a primitive society in a 100 square mile area.  We, of course, dragged him into it.  Dinner at our house comes with a fair amount of implied nonsense.

Today, my wife and I debated a stylistic aspect of writing.  I knew I was right, but I didn't have a reference to point to (and yes I realize that I just ended a sentence with a preposition, except I didn't because of this addition). Anyway, I've been reading a book and recommended it to Robin, while reading she asked about the following sentence and whether it was grammatically correct.
She licked her lips, reached for her purse, foraged in it. 
"Yes, I replied," that's perfectly legitimate. Robin wasn't convinced. I'm sure we had this discussion before...maybe several years ago, but we had both remembered the outcome differently.  I'm blogging on it now, so that when the issue comes up three or four years from now, I can point to this post ;-)

Okay, just a bit more background and then we'll get into asyndeton. Whenever we discuss rules of grammar it usually comes down to one of two things. The item under question is either:  (a) correct or (b) allowable under the "authors can bend and break whatever rules they want" get out of jail free card.  I prefer (a) because that makes it more likely she'll not edit it on those occasions when I do such things. So, I asked her to find the precedence.

For most of the morning, Robin searched and finally came up with what such a construction is called...and you guessed it, it's asyndenton. I suspect this is a little-known rule of grammar, and I'm recording it now so next time we have this "debate" I'll know right where to look for it.

So what is it? Here's the definition from the website, Literary Devices:
"Asyndeton refers to a practice in literature whereby the author purposely leaves out conjunctions in the sentence, while maintaining the grammatical accuracy of the phrase. Asyndeton as a literary tool [that] helps in shortening up the implied meaning of the entire phrase and presenting it in a succinct form. This compact version helps in creating an immediate impact whereby the reader is instantly attuned to what the writer is trying to convey. Use of this literary device helps in creating a strong impact and such sentences have greater recall worth since the idea is presented in a nutshell."
If we delve a bit deeper, we find there are three general reasons for using asyndeton (according to grammar and education portion of
  • "When [asyndeton] is used in a series of words, phrases, or clauses, it suggests the series is somehow incomplete, that there is more the writer could have included."
  •  "Asyndeton can also create ironic juxtapositions that invite readers into collaborative relationships with writers: because there are no explicit connections between phrases and clauses, readers must supply them to reconstruct the writer's intent."
  • "Asyndeton can also quicken the pace of prose, especially when it is used between clauses and sentences."
So, there you have it.  Perhaps you just learned a new word today, as well. If you're coming over this weekend for the Super Bowl party, I'll expect you to be able to recite its meaning or no nachos for you!


  1. I learned about asyndeton in an undergrad Latin class -- it turns out that in Latin, it's actually very common either for every word in a list to be followed by a conjunction ("cats and dogs and horses and men") or for there to be no conjunctions at all ("cats, dogs, horses, men"). Which may not help you win any debates with your wife in the future, unless "Well, Cicero did it!" is a legitimate argument. :D

    1. I always wanted to study Latin, never got around to it. Maybe I should look into a course at our local community college. As for winning the debate...prior precedence...especially highly regarded precedence is often what becomes the "definitive" word on such subjects.

  2. Point out how ridiculous are the punctuation rules for quotation marks, and perhaps that will cease disagreements. Why, oh, why are those periods and commas within the quotes, unless there is a following parenthetical phrase (like a citation), in which case they come after the closing parenthesis; and why, oh why are those question marks inside the quotation mark in a question but outside the quotation mark when quoting someone else's question? Oh , Oh ,Oh, and then there are the rules for semicolons and quotation marks. There must be an entire book written on punctuation rules for quotation marks. It's enough to make you chuck the entire rule set into the dumpster.

    1. Great point. Quotes and punctuation is something that can drive people crazy. I've had long debates about how when a person "laughed" it's an action tag, rather than a dialog tag, because you can't laugh words. So....

      "That's the funniest thing I've heard." Royce laughed. Is correct even though others insist it should be "That's teh funniest thing I've heard," Royce laughed.

  3. I hate it. I hate sentences like that. I like them with the "and" better. Sorry, Michael! I love your books dearly (in fact, I am in the middle of Hollow World on audio right now!) but must admit those sentences drive me a little crazy. I just sort of mentally add back the missing "and". This is quite easy since I am forced to listen to most books instead of actually reading them due to time constraints and a long commute. Easy to pretend the narrator said "and". I'm a bit of a grammar freak, though, so likely most readers don't notice, don't mind, don't care. <--- ;-)

    1. You and my wife would make good reading buddies. She's not a fan, either. I don't use them very often, but I do feel they have a time and a place, and therefore you'll find them in my writing from time to time. Still, it's infrequent, so I doubt you will notice it often.

      How much or how little people care about such things I'm not sure.

    2. No, you don't overuse them. If I were noticing it every page or few pages, I'd get so frustrated that I'd probably stop. Maybe. Unless Royce were involved, in which case I probably wouldn't.

      Sometimes you drop "with" or other prepositions too, but I think that's for effect as well. There was one sentence in Hollow World just over the last day or so that reached out and grabbed me and said, "I'm missing a WITH here!". If it weren't so hard to scroll through audio, I'd find it for you. I'm sure it wasn't an error--I'm sure you did it for effect.

      You have to understand, though, that I'm a grammar freak of the worst kind. I know it. I usually keep it to myself, but since you brought it up yourself...well. :)

  4. I too am in the middle of Hollow World. I'm loving the discussions about identity, love, God, paradise, conflict. I've bookmarked and highlighted many passages to reread.

  5. Nice! I'm so glad you are enjoying the read.