Anacoluthon: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If I had a dollar for every--what were we talking about? Oh, yeah! Anacoluthon! If this syntactic phenomenon were a kid in your class, it would definitely be the one always in detention for interrupting the teacher. Read on to find out more about this disruptive literary influence, along with a few examples!

Sentence…Interrupted: Defining Anacoluthon

Although it might sound like the name for an Olympic event, 'anacoluthon' couldn't have less to do with the focused world of athletics. Nevertheless, its origins are Greek just the same. Coming from anakolouthia, signifying 'the act of not following,' anacoluthon indicates a disruption in syntax resulting from two non-parallel grammatical constructions.

In simpler terms, it's beginning a sentence one way, but ending it another, usually with an unexpectedly abrupt shift in subject. For instance, anyone who has ever been frustrated with a customer service department might blurt out 'I should just march right down--oh, just forget it!' Notice how the subject of the sentence has shifted from 'I' to an understood 'you' ('oh, just you forget it'), as well as how a dash (--) commonly punctuates this sort of phenomenon.

Like these two potsherds, grammatical elements of anacolutha can be forced together, but it is evident that they do not belong that way.
Photo of potsherds excavated from the Areopagos in Athens, Greece

Before anyone had even come up with Latin, the Greeks used 'anacoluthon' in the same way the Romans and we today use the phrase non sequitur (Latin for 'It does not follow.'). However, these two terms now denote very different ideas, so we should be careful not to confuse them. 'Anacolutha' are interruptions in sentence structure, often representative in literature of disjointed thought processes. A 'non sequitur' can represent the same jumbled thoughts, but is more concerned in describing the faulty logic behind them.

For example, saying that because one grain silo has already burned down, we should burn the rest would be a non sequitur. Here, the problem isn't with the words or their arrangement, but with the lack of common sense of the person saying them. Some of the following examples may make as little sense to you, but that doesn't mean that these anacolutha are non sequiturs (except maybe Homer Simpson's).

In his satirical cartoon Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller explores the many logical fallacies the term implies found in politics and everyday life.
Special Non Sequitur strip created by Wiley Miller for Wikipedia

Examples of Anacolutha

Conrad Aiken's Rimbaud and Verlaine

This excerpt taken from one of Aiken's Preludes for Memnon offers a perfect discussion on anacolutha because it is itself an extended anacoluthon! You can see how the absence of punctuation after the first line in the second stanza contributes to the disjointed effect between the individual lines. With no punctuation, it becomes difficult to determine whether the speaker is continuing to list topics of discussion or if these are parts of independent phrases.

Rimbaud and Verlaine, precious pair of poets,

Genius in both (but what is genius?) playing

Chess on a marble table at an inn…

Discussing, between moves, iamb and spondee

Anacoluthon and the open vowel

God the great peacock with his angel peacocks

And his dependent peacocks the bright stars…

Hamlet's Soliloquy

Anacolutha appear much more frequently in spoken language than in the printed word. Since he often went to great pains to emulate the style of English speech in his plays, it makes sense that Shakespeare would make regular use of anacolutha, especially in his tragedies and histories. The opening to Hamlet's famous soliloquy from Act III, Scene I represents a great example. Here we can see the dashes hard at work as the playwright attempts to convey the deteriorating mental state of the title character. The frequent syntactic shifts help illustrate the rushing of a mind ill at ease.

To die, to sleep--

No more--and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to…

…To die, to sleep--

To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub…

Shakespeare also uses anacolutha to demonstrate the descent of King Lear (seen here rending his tunic) into almost literally unspeakable madness.
Portrait of King Lear

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