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Parataxis and Hypotaxis

by BLH on April 11th, 2010

I know the posts have been a little scanty here at the Corner for a week; I’ve been swamped with administrative work (including doing my taxes!) but I’m back and ready to keep readers informed about the writing life. Today I want to talk about a specific style technique in writing that you can use to your advantage to create a certain tone. The two variations I’m talking about are parataxis and hypotaxis.

Parataxis

Both of these terms refer to sentence structures and how sentences relate to one another in your writing. They are one of the most important ways readers get a feel for your writing and get clues about your mood, tone, and seriousness. So to begin, parataxis is when all of your sentences carry the same weight. They usually have very few clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated to one another. We use subordinated clauses to indicate what the most important part of a sentence is (the most important part is in the independent clause), so when there is no subordinate part, it makes every part of the sentence seem equally important. The effect is flat, declarative, and often somewhat bleak-sounding. Hemingway made this style famous. Here is an example of parataxis:

There were no rooms at the inn. We drove farther until we found a hotel. It was raining heavily and we got soaked on the way to the door. Our socks stank of mildew. We ate dinner there and talked little.

As you can see in that example, the tone feels flat but also spare and uncompromised. It is declarative and direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush, but it also leaves it a little mysterious about what the most important part of that paragraph is.

Hypotaxis

Hypotaxis, on the other hand, is when clauses in sentences are subordinated to one another. This makes it clear what we should be focusing on, and therefore also can give an emotional cast to the writing. It points clearly at what is important and what should be read with the most weight. Here’s an example of hypotaxis:

Because she didn’t want to go shopping, she decided to go to the park instead. While strolling along a path, she discovered a hidden garden. Inside the garden, while squirrels chattered at her, she rolled delightedly in the grass.

In this case, you can clearly see what the most important parts of the sentences are. She decides to go to the park; she discovers a garden; she rolls in the grass. But with the added coloration of subordination, we get more of a scene, more of an emotional background. Neither choice is better than the other, but you can see how different writers have used these two styles to tell very different stories. Hemingway’s parataxis, for example, is great for showing shocking or traumatizing scenes of war and destruction because it carries that horror and desire to distance ourselves. Jane Austen, on the other hand, might use a sophisticated mix of independent and dependent clauses in order to convey the complex social niceties of her world. Remember these techniques when you next start a writing project, and choose which one will most aptly tell your story.

From → The Writing Life

7 Comments
  1. Amy permalink

    Hi. I am a student. I have hypotaxis home work, but I don’t understand it clearly. Would you mind helping me out? Here is my writing:
    A crisp breeze is rushing in through the open door from the outside—where white flakes of snow are drizzling from the sky and covering the gigantic, leafless, Oaks and Pines, where a couple of chipmunks are racing up and down the feeding house, stuffing as many nuts as they could into their mouths, where a wild cottontail bunny is hopping back to its burrow, inside the wood, and where an ice rink in the backyard is waiting for me and my family to come out and skate.

    Is it considered as Hypotaxis or not? Please help:)

    • Hailey permalink

      It’s considered to be hypotaxis because the clauses are in subordinating relationship. Parataxis means each part is equal, whereas hypotaxis is unequal. You know what? I could be wrong.

  2. Ayodele Ifeoluwa permalink

    what is function?

  3. Ayodele Ifeoluwa permalink

    exactly what i need, what is function?

  4. lopticahoptica permalink

    Hi,

    i’m a foreigner and a student. There is nothing about these two things in my language or country.

    So, could you please tell me one thing. Are hypotaxis and parataxis constructions only within one sentence or within whole discourse? I found some examples on web, such as: veni, vidi, vici, in which is parataxis obviously shown in just one sentence. But here in your post, you have an example of few sequences that are not connected. I hope you will understand my bad English.

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