I just came across a very nice example of a rhetorical structure I know I have seen many, many times:

Our national character feels like it’s possessed by every hellish ghost of American history: white supremacist patriarchs, gilded age swindlers, paranoid McCarthyists, Know-Nothings and Klansmen and con artists and terrorists.

(Source: Sarah Kendzior writing for The Globe and Mail.)

Notice that the usual comma-delimited list turns, after the word "McCarthyists", into an unpunctuated list separated by repeated use of the word "and". The effect (at least on me as a reader) is to create a simultaneous sense of both urgency (we are trying to get through this list as fast as possible) and exhaustion (this list is SO LONG that we can't even use commas any more).

Does this rhetorical technique have a name?

  • I have never, ever seen a move from commas to ands like that in the same sentence. Usually, one has one or the other. Why would changing punctuation like that in the middle of a list have a name? I don't see that it adds much to the quality of the text....
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2018 at 22:23
  • 6
    @Lambie It changes the rhythm mid-stream, creating the impression that the writer started out "speaking" at a measured pace, but is running out of patience and trying to hurry through to the end.
    – mweiss
    Nov 7, 2018 at 23:05
  • @Lambie I can't say I've seen it much in written prose, but it's definitely an established English pattern especially in speech. Nov 8, 2018 at 12:59
  • I understand perfectly well what it is or isn't stylistically. The ultimate example of creative punctuation in contemporary novels comes from now departed Tom Wolfe. This is not a look-it-up-in-a-guide-type of question. It is a question that can only be opinion based. What Ms. Kendzior did, she did for effect. There are no rules for it. One does as one likes in these waters.
    – Lambie
    Nov 8, 2018 at 19:38
  • @Lambie I think where we differ is that you regard this as an idiosyncratic device by one writer, whereas I am sure I have seen many, many examples of it over the years. I may be wrong, of course, and perhaps I should post a separate question asking for more examples (not sure if that would be on-topic, though).
    – mweiss
    Nov 9, 2018 at 0:15

2 Answers 2


You are likely thinking of polysyndeton and asyndeton—probably the latter, but the former can achieve the same result in a different way. From your example, the list of which includes both comma-separated items and conjunction-separated items, I might conclude both could be applicable here.

Polysyndeton is the use of multiple conjunctions to stretch out a passage of prose to avoid coming to a full stop:

I said, "Who killed him?" and he said, "I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right," and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was all right only she was full of water. — Ernest Hemingway, "After the Storm."

Asyndeton is the avoidance of conjunctions, "often resulting in a hurried rhythm or vehement effect":

I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods. — Her Kind by Anne Sexton

(See Sylva Rhetoricae.)

  • 1
    These are both close, but I'm interested specifically in the use of beginning a list with commas (which I guess would be asyndeton) and then "changing" to a list with no commas but conjunctions (polysyndeton). It's the transition from one to the other mid-list that I find interesting.
    – mweiss
    Nov 7, 2018 at 20:47
  • 4
    @mweiss: It is an admixture of both, which probably doesn't have a separate name because naming ad hoc combinations of rhetorical figures would cause the already prodigious list of named figures to expand at least geometrically.
    – Robusto
    Nov 7, 2018 at 20:55
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    Keeping with Greek prefixes, we could call it dramatic troposyndeton. Nov 7, 2018 at 22:37
  • 2
    @TKK That may be wholly manufactured, but I like it. :)
    – mweiss
    Nov 7, 2018 at 23:36

Ward Farnsworth, in Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, refers to this simply as "asyndeton […] with polysyndeton". (And the only reason it's asyndeton with polysyndeton, rather than polysyndeton with asyndeton, is that polysyndeton is the chapter before asyndeton, so their combination is discussed under the latter.) So I don't think there's a name for this.

That said, of his three quotations showing asyndeton followed by polysyndeton (page 154) and one showing polysyndeton followed by asyndeton (page 155), none is quite like your example, where a single list changes partway through from one to the other. Of his four, the one that comes closest is this:

From a national and imperial point of view, you need never be alarmed at the dangers of one-man power so long as the House of Lords endures. Be he minister, be he capitalist, be he demagog – be he Mr. Gladstone, or Mr. Chamberlain, or even Mr. Schnadhorst – against that bulwark of popular liberty and civil order he will dash himself in vain.  —Spencer, speech at Birmingham (1884)

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