This post describes polysyndeton, asyndeton, and isocolon, three simple techniques of classical rhetoric—the effective and persuasive use of language.

Don’t let the fancy names put you off: you’ll recognize these techniques, and you might be using them already. My own understanding of them comes from Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth (the Texas Law Dean) and from The Elements of Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner.

Polysyndeton means using conjunctions between all the items in a series.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Polysyndeton: The flag is red and white and blue.

Thus, with polysyndeton, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism and gambling and fraud and assault.

To improve your writing, you must study and practice and accept critique.

In legal writing, polysyndeton can supply two types of emphasis. First, “the result is to emphasize every one of the items singly . . . .” Farnsworth, at 128. The extra conjunctions invite readers to think of the items separately rather than as a group. Second, polysyndeton tends to emphasize the sheer number of items in the list. Id.

Compare

The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, and superficial.
with
The defendant’s responses were hasty and terse and superficial.

 

Asyndeton means omitting the conjunction, typically before the last item in a series.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Asyndeton: The flag is red, white, blue.

With asyndeton, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism, gambling, fraud, assault.

To improve your writing, you must study, practice, accept critique.

Asyndeton creates emphasis because omitting the conjunction is “irregular and unexpected.” Farnsworth, at 147. Although asyndeton can improve the rhythm of some sentences, Farnsworth also acknowledges it can seem “mannered.” Id. at 148. He’s right. He might have said “literary” or even “showy.” In general, legal writers should use asyndeton cautiously.

Compare

The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, and superficial.
with
The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, superficial.

 

Isocolon means a series of similarly structured phrases, clauses, or sentences of the same length. It’s a form of parallelism.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Isocolon: The flag is red; it is white; it is blue

Isocolon: The flag is red. The flag is white. The flag is blue.

Using isocolon, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism, charges of gambling, charges of fraud, and charges of assault.

The background check showed charges of vandalism; it showed charges of gambling; it showed charges of fraud; it showed charges of assault.

To improve your writing, you must confront your faults, practice your skills, and study others’ writing.

Using isocolon can “produce pleasing rhythms,” according to Farnsworth, and allows writers to use a parallel structure to reinforce parallel substance. Id. at 74. But consider this example:

The defendant’s responses were inappropriate. They were hasty. They were terse. They were superficial.

The tone begins to sound oratorical, as Farnsworth notes. Id. So although isocolon is appropriate for legal writing, it’s more common in speech.

In fact, all three techniques appear more frequently in speeches and literature than in formal legal writing. Outside legal writing, all three can be used in more sophisticated ways than shown here. Still, I recommend adding these techniques to your toolkit for persuasive legal writing. And as with any form of rhetoric and persuasion, be wise: before resorting to classical rhetoric, make sure your writing is clear, direct, correct.