Hypotaxis and Parataxis; Periodic and Running Style

Hypotaxis [— +/→ _ etc.]

Hypotaxis represents unequal relationships between words, phrases or clauses grammatically. The most common kind is subordination (Gk hypo- “beneath” + taxis “arrangement”; transliterated in L as sub- “beneath” + ordinare “arrange”), or the use of complex or compound-complex sentences. For example,

  1. a subordinate sentence: a construction in which one or more clauses are dependent on a main clause, either
    • a subordinate complement clause introduced by a complementiser (that [a determiner], why [an interrogative], if, whether [conjunctions], etc.), e.g., I don’t know if George is awake yet, or
    • a subordinate modifier clause introduced by a subordinating conjunction (after, because, while, etc.), e.g., George overslept because his alarm clock was broken.
  2. a premodification: in the phrase “inexpensive composite materials” “composite” modifies “materials” while “inexpensive” modifies the complex head “composite materials,” rather than “composite” or “materials” — note that such hypotactic modifiers cannot be separated by commas (see wikipedia).

Thus, hypotaxis signals the causal, logical, spatial or temporal relationship between words, clauses or sentences.

Hypotactic style un- or enfolds — and is characteristic of élite or literary speech (acrolect [akros Gk “at the top”]). It gives the effect of experience reworked or in the process of being so.

Compare periodic style, based on the periodic sentence, which is often left-modifying, i.e., uses parallel phrases/clauses or dependent clauses as modifiers at the start, and that thus isn’t grammatically complete until the final phrase or clause. It uses suspension, parallelism, balance and climax. As in Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson or Thomas de Quincy.

(Contrast pointed style, a.k.a. curt or exploded periodic style, the inversion of periodic style, that is often right- not left-modifying; it offers its conclusion and then reflects, and is based on cumulative (or loose) sentences. As in Francis Bacon — or current “academic style.”)

Here’s a classic hypotactic periodic sentence:

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. (I Corinthians 13)

This sentence from Joan Didion is hypotactic, but pointed not periodic:

Let the reader be introduced to Joan Didion, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing table in her own room in her own house on Welbeck Street. (From Democracy)

And here’s a cumulative sentence from George Saunders:

At work he was known to punctuate his conversations with brief wild laughs and gusts of inchoate enthusiasm and subsequent embarrassment, expressed by a sudden plunging of the hands into his pockets, after which he would yank his hands out of his pockets, too ashamed of his own shame to stand there merely grimacing for even an instant longer. (From “The Falls“)

Although such prose is often more complex formally, it supplies the reader with all they need to interpret the content of the sentence.

Parataxis [—,— etc.]

Parataxis represents equal relationships between words, phrases or clauses grammatically. The most common kind is juxtaposition (Gk “act of placing side by side,” fr. para beside + tassein to arrange; transliterated in L as juxta- “next” + poser [Fr] “place” [cf. L positio placing]), or the use of simple sentences with or without coordinating conjunctions.

  1. Sun was shining. We went for a walk. Or: Sun was shining; we went for a walk. Or, “incorrectly”: Sun was shining, we went for a walk (comma splice, a.k.a. parallel clause); and: Sun was shining—as per usual for February—we went for a walk (run-on sentence, a.k.a. interruptive embedding). These are both forms of asyndeton (the omission of conjunctions).
  2. He’s a musician, isn’t he (an aside)?
  3. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . (a list).
  4. I don’t think again we’ll go (an adjacency violation).
  5. Time I haven’t got (fronting). Or:  Sean—he was a nice guy (left-dislocation).
  6. He ran and jumped and whooped for joy (polysyndeton: this uses coordinating conjunctions, more than one, in fact—but to paratactic not hypotactic effect).

All the words, phrases or clauses carry the same weight: the relationship between them is supplied by the reader based on context or, more commonly, on the sequence in which they appear, i.e. prior = causal (post hoc ergo propter hoc). Simply speaking, parataxis uses compound sentences, or two or more simple sentences in combination.

Paratactic style adds or accumulates — and is closer to everyday or conversational speech (basilect [cf. base, ult. f. basson “deeper,” f. bathys “deep”]). It gives the effect of experience in process — of piling up, swiftness, and sometimes compression.

Cf. running style, the opposite of periodic style; it uses anaphora (repetition), parenthesis, absolute phrases, etc. As in Laurence Sterne or Henry James.

Here’s a couple of classic examples:

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. . . . (Charles Dickens, Bleak House)

I came, I saw, I conquered. (Caesar, in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar 50)

Because such prose is less complex formally, it requires the reader to do more work to interpret the content of the sentence.

Interestingly, Webster’s Third suggests in its definition of the related term parataxic that there might be such a thing as psychological parataxis (and, potentially, hypotaxis):

a mode of individual experience in which persons, events, and relationships are perceived as discrete phenomena, in which occurrences in the real are seen as having no sequential or logical relationship [as they might in hypotaxis], but in which all external stimuli have only idiosyncratic autistic significance. (Quoted in Collins 68)


N.B. To represent hypotaxis and parataxis as opposites isn’t strictly correct; parataxis covers a much broader range of devices.

See Richard A. Lanham’s excellent introduction in Analyzing Prose (2nd ed. [1983; New York: Continuum, 2003]) and Christopher Collins’ extrapolation from these linguistic tactics to poetic tactics, see The Poetics of the Mind’s Eye: Literature and the Psychology of Imagination (Philadelphia, PA: UPP, 1991). For Halliday’s (somewhat eccentric) functional grammatical explanation, see Ismail S. Talib’s Literary Stylistics.

Daniel Kies, Forms of Subordinate Clauses


12 thoughts on “Hypotaxis and Parataxis; Periodic and Running Style

  1. For more on this can I recommend an article by Mark Leahy ‘Plantation and thicket -a double reading of Sir Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus’ in Performance Research magazine Vol10 #2 2005, which compares hypotaxis to the hive and parataxis to the swarm, noticing how the two modes can become interchangable, ie a “rigid grid slump into a tangled net”.

  2. Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language Translated into English by John Elwolde (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 58.

    Among the more noticeable syntactic features of early biblical poetry is
    “… the widespread use of paratactic and hypotactic asyndeton…”

  3. very lucid! Could you offer some insights into medieval english texts that use parataxis to suggest “horizontal” relations between the human and the divine

    • Reading Erich Auerbach’s great book Mimesis (The representation of reality in literature), I note his comments on late Roman and early Christian (sometimes Judeao-Christian) writing: in classical Latin parataxis is used to suggest temporal or causal connections between described events/times/people separated widely by time, etc., and he calls these connections horizontal. The underlying “multilayered” approach that he associates with the Judeo-Christian scriptures and early commentary indicates “vertical” connections (i.e., between man and God). To Auerbach multilayered referred to the implied state of mind of the characters in the story, with an inner struggle taking place within the mind. His first illustration of this is the description of Abraham after he is commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac. Anyway, this is my recollection of how he used these terms and I am proably not doing full justice to he argument.

  4. Pingback: Editing: stitching a more fluid essay | Comp|Post
  5. Pingback: Prolixity: Wordiness as Obscurantism | nodestinationlanguage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s