Parataxis is a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors short, simple sentences, with the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions (from Greek for 'act of placing side by side'; from para, 'beside' and tassein, 'to arrange'; contrasted to syntaxis or hypotaxis).
It is also used to describe a technique in poetry in which two images or fragments, usually starkly dissimilar images or fragments, are juxtaposed without a clear connection. Readers are then left to make their own connections implied by the paratactic syntax. Ezra Pound, in his adaptation of Chinese and Japanese poetry, made the stark juxtaposition of images an important part of English language poetry.
Origin of the term
Edward Morris wrote in 1901 that the term was introduced into linguistics by Friedrich Thiersch in his Greek Grammar (1831). The concept has expanded since then, and a number of definitions have emerged, often conflicting.
Parataxis may be considered from three points of view:
- the psychological aspect,
- the linguistic means to express the paratactic relation,
- and the resulting sentence structure.
The underlying idea is that in a connected discourse, complete independence among the consecutive sentences is very rare. This observation is captured in the expression "train of thought". Consider the following:
- The sun was shining brightly. We went for a walk.
- The sun was shining brightly; we went for a walk.
- The sun was shining brightly, and we went for a walk.
- The sun was shining brightly, so we went for a walk.
In the first example, the two sentences are independent expressions, while in the last example they are dependent. However the connection of thought in the first examples is just as real as in the last ones, where it is explicitly expressed via the syntax of subordination.
In spoken language, this continuance from sentence to sentence is supported by intonation and timing (rhythm, pause). While details may differ among different languages and cultures, generally similar musicality and shortness of pauses indicate the continuation, while the change of tone and longer pause generally indicate the transition to another connected group of ideas.
Perhaps the best known use of parataxis is Julius Caesar's famous laconic phrase, "Veni, vidi, vici" or, "I came, I saw, I conquered". Another example is Mr. Jingle's speech in Chapter 2 of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.
'Come along, then,' said he of the green coat, lugging Mr. Pickwick after him by main force, and talking the whole way. 'Here, No. 924, take your fare, and take yourself offâ"respectable gentlemanâ"know him wellâ"none of your nonsenseâ"this way, sirâ"where's your friends?â"all a mistake, I seeâ"never mindâ"accidents will happenâ"best regulated familiesâ"never say dieâ"down upon your luckâ"Pull him UPâ"Put that in his pipeâ"like the flavourâ"damned rascals.' And with a lengthened string of similar broken sentences, delivered with extraordinary volubility, the stranger led the way to the traveller's waiting-room, whither he was closely followed by Mr. Pickwick and his disciples.
Perhaps a more extreme proponent of the form was Samuel Beckett. The opening to his monologue "Not I" is a classic example:
" . out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . in a godforâ" . . . 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" and so on.
Although the use of ellipses here arguably prevents it from being seen as a classic example of parataxis, as a spoken text it operates in precisely that way. Other examples by Beckett would include large chunks of Lucky's famous speech in Waiting for Godot.
The term parataxis has also been appropriated by some cultural theorists to describe certain works of art or "cultural texts" in which a series of scenes or elements are presented side by side in no particular order or hierarchy. Examples might range from the collages of the dadaists and Robert Rauschenberg to many contemporary music videos.