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There’s Parataxis, and Then There’s Hypotaxis

Long after I’d graduated from college, and after years of trying to help writers craft more expressive sentences, I audited a Harvard course taught by the critic James Wood. It was there I first heard the word parataxis, applied to this unbearably sad passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

“Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.”

Para-what? In writing my books, I’d researched writing all the way back to The Garden of Eloquence, published in 1593. I’d devoted entire chapters to coordination and subordination. I’d preached the power of parallelism and explained ways to build rhythm into sentences. But I’d never heard of parataxis; now it dangled before me like a flashy lure in otherwise transparent water.

I opened a dictionary, which defined parataxis as “the juxtaposition of clauses or phrases without the use of a coordinating or subordinating conjunction, as It was cold; the snows came.” But the McCarthy passage, and the Hemingway passages Wood compared it with, was full of coordinating conjunctions. The Web was no help; I found more contradictions along with another confusing term, hypotaxis.

On the library’s reference shelves, I learned that parataxis, coined about 1842, comes from the Greek for “side by side arrangement.” (The Latin term is coordination.) The device holds disparate ideas in diffident equilibrium. Parataxis might use punctuation—commas, semi-colons, full stops—to force the juxtaposition. But it might also run one idea into another by using ands to smooth the jump from one autonomous thought to the next.

The terse compression of parataxis may yield a staccato rhythm. Erich Auerbach, in Mimesis, refers to the “slashing abruptness,” the “blow by blow” of verbal blocks that abut each other without an inherent link. Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici” offers one example. This Ruth Reichl tweet offers another:

“Scrambled weather. Lightning forecast. Earthbound way to start the day: buttered oatmeal, fresh berries, river of thick cream. So soothed.”

But parataxis can also lead to a sense of things piling up, a rush of ideas, a fast-moving narrative. The rhythm can be as sinuous as it is insistent. Think of the simple but elevated prose of the Bible (“And God said, “Let there be light,’ and there was light.”) Or the storytelling style of Rudyard Kipling, describing Kangaroo:

“He was grey and he was woolly, and his pride was inordinate: he danced on a sandbank in the Middle of Australia, and he went to the Big God Nqong.”

The method is not as simple as it appears, resulting in a complex texture and tone that can be both lyric and ironic. Here’s a Joan Didion description:

“I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume. …”

But what about that other new lure in the stream, hypotaxis? If parataxis comes from the Greek for “arranging side by side,” hypotaxis comes from the Greek for “arranging under.” Hypotaxis, which emerged as a term in 1883, joins clauses with subordinating conjunctions, such as when, although, and after.

Where parataxis favors equality (“here’s this and now here’s that”), hypotaxis insists on hierarchy (“if this, then that”). Hypotaxis doesn’t just juxtapose ideas; it subordinates one to another—it might express cause and effect (“because A, B”), or chronological sequence (“after C, D”), or comparison (“X is better than Y”).

If parataxis links phrases or clauses with short pauses, creating a percussive effect, or perhaps a steady drum of ideas, hypotaxis creates stronger pauses, letting subordinate conjunctions put twists and turns into a sentence, allowing not just juxtaposition but transition, the movement from one group of ideas to another.

How do these devices influence literary style? Especially in poetry, parataxis allows a writer to array fragments that work off each other in ways the reader is left to figure out. Parataxis, especially with the coordinating conjunctions, makes prose less narratively precise, more discursive. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, ratchets up the tension in sentences, allowing details to accrue and then crack with drama.

Take, for example, a passage from James Baldwin’s memoir, Notes From a Native Son. Baldwin describes his father’s reactions to “white people who came to our house” and in particular to one of Baldwin’s teachers, “a very sweet and generous woman” possessed of an “open, Midwestern face.” Hypotactic sentences allow Baldwin to take several twists and turns as he builds individual bits toward a transformative end:

In later years, particularly when it began to be clear that this ‘education’ of mine was going to lead me to perdition, he … warned me that my white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down. Some of them could be nice, he admitted, but none of them were to be trusted and most of them were not even nice. The best thing was to have as little to do with them as possible. I did not feel this way and I was certain, in my innocence, that I never would.

Hypotaxis is also known as “subordination,” and it’s the whens and the but here that put crimps in the sentences. Phillip Lopate, in The Art of the Personal Essay, remarks that Baldwin’s style “yoked together two opposites, tenderness and ferocity.”

The critic Stanley Fish has written that the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis is like “the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.”

Constance Hale is a journalist and author based in San Francisco. This post is adapted from material in the revised and updated edition of  Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose, to be published August 13 by Three Rivers Press. Lucy Ferriss will be back next week. 

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