Parataxis in writing refers to the use of simple declarative sentences or independent clauses, strung side by side. They may be written with or without conjunctions. As a literary device, it can focus the reader on a particular idea, emotion, or setting. Each sentence reinforces the impression made by the previous one, creating a powerful overall effect.
Derived from a Greek expression meaning “side by side,” parataxis puts together a series of clauses that can stand alone. Rather than mixing longer and shorter sentences, it achieves its effect by keeping the clauses together, letting them explain each other as one idea. For instance, Julius Caesar aptly summed up his power with the paratactic declaration “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Parataxis is also a useful device in describing a setting. It is used in the Book of Genesis of the Bible to describe the creation of the world from nothing. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
American novelist Raymond Chandler uses parataxis in Farewell, My Lovely to sum up the weary state of mind of his protagonist private detective. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.”
Paratactic sentences are also effective in describing a quick succession of thoughts. They can evoke the way in which things seem to happen all at once. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes, “I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.”
The often staccato rhythm and repetition of paratactic language can reinforce a perception. In Sula, American writer Toni Morris describes a character with seemingly no past or future by repeating all the things he does not possess. “…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco.”
Parataxis is the opposite of hypotaxis which uses complex sentences to relate different ideas and meanings to one another within a sentence. It is also used to explain or expand the concept contained in the sentence. Hypotaxis is often employed as a rhetorical device in speeches.