Conjunctions: Dropping from a series

June 7, 2007: Issue 191

Our standard style for a series is to separate the items with commas, using a comma and a conjunction before the final item:
• She painted the bookcase purple, blue, and green.
• They eat fresh fruits and vegetables, they watch their fat intake, and they walk 10–12 miles a week.

It’s acceptable, though, to drop the final conjunction. Sometimes this construction is helpful to add emphasis or to vary your rhythm. It’s called asyndeton, meaning roughly “not bound together.” Asyndeton shows up in great speeches through history:
• Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
• Abraham Lincoln: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
• John F. Kennedy: “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe”

Like any strong literary device, asyndeton is most effective when it’s used sparingly. But it can find a place in our writing:
• The effect is subtle, quiet, soothing.
• Julie sanded, Brian painted, little Charlie napped.

Asyndeton has a cousin, polysyndeton, in which conjunctions separate all the items in a series:
• I asked and I begged and I shouted and I cried.
• After months of dust and disruption and disorder, our project was finished.

Polysendeton, too, is most effective in small doses.

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