October 25, 2012
Literary Devices/ Rhetoric Strategies
Alliteration is a literary or rhetorical stylistic device that consists in repeating
the same consonant sound at the beginning of several words in close
An example is the Mother Goose tongue twister, "Peter Piper picked a peck of
pickled peppers …".
The initial consonant sound is usually repeated in neighboring words
(sometimes also in words that are not next to each other).
Repetition of initial consonant sounds means that only the sound must be the
same, not the consonants themselves.
If the neighboring words start with the same consonant but have a different
initial sound, the words are not alliterated
Alliteration draws attention to the phrase and is often used for emphasis.
Alliteration can also be made to make connections that are not grounded in
“Alliteration, or front rhyme, capitalizes on chance. . . . This powerful glue can
connect elements without logical relationship."
(Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2003)
You'll never put a better bit of butter on your knife."
(advertising slogan for Country Life butter)
"The soul selects her own society."
"Forget the most obvious problem with collegiate calorie counting, that studying
Kierkegaard or Conrad after a dinner of seitan and soy chips would render even
robust stomachs seasick, sometimes outright ill. And I won’t harp on the clear link
between vigorous salad consumption and sulkiness.” (Marisha Pessl, "Seize the
Weight," The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006)
"In a somer seson, whan soft was the sonne . . ."
(William Langland, Piers Plowman, 14th century)
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
"The daily diary of the American dream."
(slogan of The Wall Street Journal)
"Pompey Pipped at the Post as Pippo Pounces"
(sports headline, Daily Express, Nov. 28, 2008)
"A moist young moon hung above the mist of a neighboring meadow."
(Vladimir Nabokov, Conclusive Evidence) Asyndeton
Asyndeton consists of omitting conjunctions between words, phrases, or
–"...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish
from the earth." Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”
–"...that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any
friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." John F.
Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
1.Aristotle on Asyndeton
Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric that this device was more effective in spoken
oratories than in written prose:
o "Thus strings of unconnected words, and constant repetitions of
words and phrases, are very properly condemned in written
speeches: but not in spoken speeches — speakers use them freely, for
they have a dramatic effect. In this repetition there must be variety of
tone, paving the way, as it were, to dramatic effect; e.g., 'This is the
villain among you who deceived you, who cheated you, who meant to
betray you completely.'" Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book III, Chapter 12.
Aristotle also believed that asyndeton can be used effectively in endings of
works, and he himself employs the device in the final passage of the Rhetoric:
"For the conclusion, the disconnected style of language is appropriate, and
will mark the difference between the oration and the peroration. 'I have
done. You have heard me. The facts are before you. I ask for your
judgement.'" Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book III, Chapter 19.
In a list of items, asyndeton gives the effect of unpremeditated multiplicity, of
an extemporaneous rather than a labored account:
– On his return he received medals, honors, treasures, titles, fame.
The lack of the "and" conjunction gives the impression that the list is perhaps
not complete. Compare:
– She likes pickles, olives, raisins, dates, pretzels.
– She likes pickles, olives, raisins, dates, and pretzels.
Sometimes an asyndetic list is useful for the strong and direct climactic effect
it has, much more emphatic than if a final conjunction were used. Compare:
– They spent the day wondering, searching, thinking, understanding.
– They spent the day wondering, searching, thinking, and
In certain cases, the omission of a conjunction between short phrases gives
the impression of synonymity to the phrases, or makes the latter phrase
appear to be an afterthought or even a substitute for the former. Compare:
– He was a winner, a hero. – He was a winner and a hero.
Notice also the degree of spontaneity granted in some cases by asyndetic
usage. "The moist, rich, fertile soil," appears more natural and spontaneous
than "the moist, rich, and fertile soil
Generally, asyndeton offers the feeling of speed and concision to lists and
phrases and clauses, but occasionally the effect cannot be so easily
categorized. Consider the "flavor" of these examples:
– If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at
transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to
whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose
claims upon us we fear. --John Henry Newman
– We certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our
love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for
whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose
anger we are troubled and waste away. --John Henry Newman
Several notable examples can be found in American political speeches
The US Declaration of Independence includes an example of asyndeton,
referring to the British:
o "We must... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in
War, in Peace Friends."
Another frequently used, extended example, is Winston Churchill's address,
"We shall fight on the beaches":
o "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on
the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and
growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the
cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the
landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall
fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . . "
Polysyndeton is the use of several conjunctions in close succession, especially
where some might be omitted
o “He ran and jumped and laughed for joy".
In other words, polysyndeton is the use of more conjunctions than necessary
between each word, phrase, or clause.
It is thus structurally the opposite of asyndeton.
Polysyndeton is a stylistic scheme used to achieve a variety of effects:
o it can increase the rhythm of prose,
o speed or slow its pace,
o convey solemnity or even ecstatic, childlike exuberance.
The rhetorical effect of polysyndeton, however, often shares with that of
asyndeton a feeling of multiplicity, energetic enumeration, and building up. o “They read and studied and wrote and drilled. I laughed and played
and talked and flunked.”
Use polysyndeton to show an attempt to encompass something complex:
o The water, like a witch's oils, / Burnt green, and blue, and white. --S. T.
o [He] pursues his way, / And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or
flies. --John Milton
The multiple conjunctions of the polysyndetic structure call attention to
themselves and therefore add the effect of persistence or intensity or
emphasis to the other effect of multiplicity.
The repeated use of "nor" or "or" emphasizes alternatives
The repeated use of "but" or "yet" stresses qualifications.
Consider the effectiveness of the following:
o We have not power, nor influence, nor money, nor authority; but a
willingness to persevere, and the hope that we shall conquer soon.
Polysyndeton is used extensively in the King James Version of the Bible.
o “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of
the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl
of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only
remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.” (Genesis
o “Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcase of an
unclean beast, or a carcase of unclean cattle, or the carcase of unclean
creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean,
and guilty.” (Leviticus 5:2)
Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of
successive phrases, clauses, or sentences:
o To think on death it is a misery,/ To think on life it is a vanity;/ To
think on the world verily it is,/ To think that here man hath no perfect
o In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things
to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth
the laws of peace. --Richard de Bury
o The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of
endeavoring to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his
imitations, he must endeavor to improve them by the grandeur of his
ideas; instead of seeking praise, by deceiving the superficial sense of
the spectator, he must strive for fame by captivating the imagination. -
-Sir Joshua Reynolds
o They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and
therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by
experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and
partial account. --Samuel Johnson
o •Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or words at the
beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences:
o –To think o