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Paratactic Narrative Definition Essay

Definition of Parataxis

Parataxis is derived from a Greek word that means “to place side by side.” It can be defined as a rhetorical term in which phrases and clauses are placed one after another independently, without coordinating or subordinating them through the use of conjunctions. It is also called “additive style.” Parataxis is sometimes used as asyndeton, in which the phrases and clauses are coordinated without conjunctions.

The Difference Between Parataxis and Hypotaxis

Hypotaxis is the opposite of parataxis. In hypotaxis, the sentences, clauses, and phrases are subordinated and linked. However, in parataxis the phrases, clauses, and sentences are not subordinated or coordinated.

Examples of Parataxis in Literature

Example #1: Life of Caesar (By Plutarch)

“Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)

This is among the most famous examples of parataxis. There are no conjunctions or joining words used. The phrases are used equally, which means the phrases are placed with equal status.

Example #2: Bleak House (By Charles Dickens)

“Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better–splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners…”

This is also among the famous parataxis examples in literature. Here, the clauses are connected loosely, and create a lopping discourse. For example, at some places conjunctions are used lightly, such as “to” and “and.”

Example #3: Sula (By Toni Morrison)

“Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t know who or what he was … with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do … he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands…”

In this extract, a grammatically-equal relationship is created between the phrases and clauses. Also, there are no coordinating or subordinating conjunctions between the clauses and phrases.

Example #4: Continuities (By Walt Whitman)

“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space – ample the fields of Nature…”

In this excerpt, all the phrases and clauses carry equal weight. This creates the effect of piling up and compression.

Example #5: Waiting for Godot (By Samuel Beckett)

“out … ‘into this world … ‘this world … ‘tiny little thing … ‘before its time … ‘in a god for– … ‘what? … ‘girl? … ‘yes … ‘tiny little girl … ‘into this … ‘out into this … ‘before her time … ‘godforsaken hole called … ‘called … ‘no matter … ‘parents unknown … ‘unheard of … ‘he having vanished … ‘thin air … ‘no sooner buttoned up his breeches … ‘she similarly … ‘eight months later … ‘almost to the tick … ‘so no love … ‘spared that … ‘no love such as normally vented on the … ‘speechless infant … ‘in the home … ‘no … ‘nor indeed for that matter any of any kind … ‘no love of any kind … ‘at any subsequent stage … “

Beckett has not used formal constraints (conjunctions). The clauses are juxtaposed without any clear connection, explaining one another like a single idea, in spite of mixing longer and shorter sentences.

Function of Parataxis

Paratactic sentences, clauses, and phrases are useful in explaining a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose. They could evoke feelings in a similar way as though they happened at once. It is a helpful device when describing a setting. In simple words, parataxis helps the readers to focus on a particular idea, thought, setting, or emotion. Also, cultural theorists use it in cultural texts where a series of events is shown side by side.

Parataxis and Hypotaxis

By Maeve Maddox

When a reader asked me to write about “the terms parataxis and hypotaxis and how they relate to Beowulf,” I had to laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite a fan of Beowulf. Wearing my academic hat, I’ve written more than one essay about this treasure of English literature, but somehow it doesn’t strike me as a suitable topic for the DWT audience. I was pleased by the request, but put it away at the bottom of my idea file.

Now, however, I’m ready to write about parataxis and hypotaxis–not as they relate to Beowulf, but as they relate to non-academic writing.

parataxis: the placing of clauses one after another, without connecting words (conjunctions) to show the relation between them.

Dickens employs parataxis in his opening to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Hypotaxis, on the other hand, refers to the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions to indicate the relation between clauses. Here’s a passage from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit that illustrates hypotaxis:

After losing [his shoes], he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket.

Parataxis is common in conversation, as illustrated in this passage written by an author noted for his ability to capture contemporary speech:

“Actually,” Chris said, “you get right down to it, Phyllis’s the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds…I’m sitting here trying to stay awake, she’s telling me about the exciting world of trust funds.” –Elmore Leonard, Freaky Deaky.

Hemingway’s narrative style was so paratactic as to sound babyish:

Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.

Hemingway got away with it, but a college freshman or a business executive who wrote like that would not be regarded as much of a communicator. Clear writing demands connecting words like if, because, and so.

As for a discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis in Beowulf, I’ll leave that to the scholars who love to argue about such things.

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1 Response to “Parataxis and Hypotaxis”

  • venqax

    Silly question. I’ll bet there were no taxis, there were none in Beowulf’s time, there certainly was not a par of ’em anywhere. But it’s early in the day for me…

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