Knees, legs, boots

Knees, legs, boots

In Brief

Figure of speech. Having watched William Brayden ascend the stairs, Bloom and Red Murray see the last few parts of the big man disappear: "They watched the knees, legs, boots vanish." The sentence offers an example of asyndeton, a series of words, phrases, or clauses strung together without conjunctions. Another has been heard at the beginning of Aeolus: "trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started."

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Asyndeton (uh-SIN-duh-ton, from Greek a- = not + syndeton = bound together) refers to the omission of conjunctions (most often "and") where they would normally be supplied. Often the effect can be to speed up the flow of a sentence, create a sense of heightened urgency, and give extra punch to the final item in a series, as in the words of Julius Caesar reproduced in the illustration, or Abraham Lincoln's famous clause from the Gettysburg address: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Writers can use asyndeton to create many other effects. Richard Nordquist ( cites one that is perhaps relevant to Joyce's usage in Aeolus: when the "and" between the final two terms of a series is omitted, "it suggests the series is somehow incomplete, that there is more the writer could have included." The conjunction signals the end of the series: 'Here it is folks––the last item.' Omit that conjunction and you create the impression that the series could continue."

When Joyce describes how trams "slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold's Cross," his decision not to write "and" before "started" and "Harold's Cross" places the reader in the midst of ongoing cycles. There is no end, and will be none until the close of day or a power outage. Brayden's "knees, legs, boots" tromping up the steps similarly create the sense of an ongoing series. It will end for Brayden when he reaches the top of the staircase, but for Bloom and Murray, who cannot see that terminus, it is ongoing.

Asyndeton's opposite is polysyndeton, the use of more conjunctions than would normally be called for, as in Yeats' slow, langorous lines:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep...
JH 2023
Asyndeton in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.
Asyndeton in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Several more literary examples. Source: