The Humble Conjunction, Revisited

Bumblebee on nectarine blossomUnless you write exclusively about the most idle of the idle gentry, you will eventually find yourself writing on the subject of drudgery. Every strong, silent cavalryman needs to clean his horse’s stall, and every dreamy young bakery owner needs to sanitize her cupcake trays weekly (unless, perhaps, you want her to have a saucy encounter with the local health inspector). Springtime, with its endless earth-churning and potato-cutting and straw-spreading and seed-sowing, is the perfect time to write about drudgery and the ways we talk about it.

The conjunction is just as important to drudgery as the broom, the scrub brush, the shovel – or, should I say the broom and the scrub brush and the shovel? Depending on the effect I want to create, either construction could be correct.

The first construction – the broom, the brush, the shovel, the heavy sigh, the aching heels – is technically known as asyndeton, or the elimination of conjunctive words.  Some people refer to it as the elimination of conjunctions, but I don’t think that description is quite accurate. The words in the sentence are clearly conjoined – in fact, they are conjoined so closely that they seem to be different facets of the same thought rather than thoughts that stand on their own. When a character spends a day spent sweeping, scrubbing, digging, raking, we get the sense that her work is so dull that her tasks seem to blend into one rhythmic, monotone blur.

If our heroine spends her day sweeping and scrubbing and digging and raking, on the other hand, then we get the sense that her day is hectic, chock full of tasks that she barely has time to complete. Part of the urgent effect of polysyndeton, or using numerous conjunctive words to describe connected actions, comes from our habit of using “and” to denote the last item in a list. Using repeated conjunctions instead of commas gives the impression of a haphazard, rapid-fire stack of ideas or actions instead of a planned agenda.

Whether your character has the time for conjunctive words or not, conjunctions provide you with an important opportunity to make a statement with your writing style. Properly used, asyndeton and polysyndeton can turn a simple list into a rich opportunity to convey information about your character’s perspective and circumstances.