Copyediting and polysyndeton

As I continue blogging about the techniques of literary fiction, I will sometimes highlight books that have been important to me. And one book I certainly want to mention is Figures of Speech, by Arthur Quinn.


Quinn’s book describes the classic rhetorical figures with a light touch, and illustrates them with quotations from Shakespeare, and the King James version of the Bible, and other writers like Augustine, Montaigne, Bacon, Cicero, and Dickens. He sometimes ventures into the twentieth century with quotations from Joseph Conrad or T. S. Eliot, but most of his examples come from the more distant past.

I love Quinn’s book for many reasons. It helped me analyze and understand the prose of some of our finest writers, among them Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson. And it also helped me develop my own prose, especially in The Master of Monterey.

I’m writing about this now because I have just finished going over the copyedited version of The Goodbye House, scheduled for publication this fall. And some of the “corrections” the copyeditor made had to be changed back because she clearly was unfamiliar with the rhetorical figures of asyndeton and polysyndeton and saw them as grammatical errors to be corrected.

Let me state that copyeditors should be esteemed and valued. Every writer who publishes a book benefits from a careful copyeditor, and the manuscript I’m working on had some mistakes that my copyeditor caught. For instance, a street in my book was at times called “Prospector Street” and at other times called “Prospector Road.” My copyeditor, quite logically, asked me to pick one or the other.

But copyeditors also work according to style sheets that detail the standard uses of punctuation, and if a copyeditor doesn’t work much in fiction, that can lead them to make some changes that simply don’t accord with a writer’s intentions.

Polysyndeton, briefly defined, is the addition of conjunctions, far beyond what is necessary. One of Arthur Quinn’s examples is from Genesis.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

I believe that the repetition of the word ‘and’ gives this series of actions more gravity. Rather than simply being actions related in time, one after another, they build on each other toward the climactic act.

Polysyndeton is used not only in classic texts but also in contemporary fiction. Consider these three examples.

Set apart from the drifts and tides and lucifactions of the open water, the surface of the bay seemed almost viscous, membranous, and her things massed and accumulated, as they do in cobwebs or in the eaves and unswept corners of a house.


                                                            Marilynne Robinson

The animal screeched, and open-mouthed it lunged at him as he twisted the blade sharply and hot blood flushed from its neck and down his arm and it made no other sound again.

                                                           Coal Black Horse

                                                            Robert Olmstead

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequences and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain with him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

                                                           Blood Meridian

                                                           Cormac McCarthy

In the Robinson quote, the use of polysyndeton makes if feel as though the “drifts and tides and lucifactions” are all present simultaneously, rather than seeming like a banal list of qualities of the water. In the quote from Olmstead’s Coal Black Horse, the effect is similar to the description of Abraham in Genesis – the actions build on each other to a climax rather than seeming a simple series of actions.

In the section of Blood Meridian, in which Glanton’s Ahab-like sense of himself is declared, the effect is also one of building. This differs from Olmstead in that it is not a series of actions building to a climax, but rather a series of ever more megalomaniacal declarations of his own power.

My own use of polysyndeton in The Goodbye House is not so grand, but still significant.

Here’s my version of the sentences:

The letters described the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, and how bright the stars were at night, and the sound of the ship’s wake as it spread out from the stern.

The last record had dropped and played, and the tone arm had returned to its place, and a silence ticked through the house.

My copyeditor wanted them corrected into a more standard grammatical construction:

The letters described the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, how bright the stars were at night, and the sound of the ship’s wake as it spread out from the stern.

The last record had dropped and played, the tone arm had returned to its place, and a silence ticked through the house.

In each of the copyeditor’s versions, the sentences seems to end with perfect dullness. Here’s a list of what was in each letter that a merchant seaman wrote.

With the use of polysyndeton, each element of the sentence stands equal to the others, and the repeated conjunction slows the sentence down and lends it a certain dignity.

I’ll discuss asyndeton in my next post. In the meantime, I recommend anyone interested in developing their prose style find a copy of Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech. I used to walk by Professor Quinn’s office at Cal, and I very much regret never having knocked on his door and introduced myself.