Anacoluthon

by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

The readers have spoken and voted 42% in favour of this week’s awesome Vest-Pocket word. Thanks to everyone who voted, and fear not—you may yet see the definitions of abecedarian and affabrous on this blog if you’re patient.

Anacolu’thon, n. incoherence in a sentence.

Word in the Wild: Anacoluthons in writing are about as desirable as anchovies in birthday cake.

The word anacoluthon comes to us from Greek and means more specifically an instance of language that is wanting grammatical sequence. Of course correct English syntax is itself prone to change over time. Consider, for instance, the following quotations about sleeping dogs:

“It is nought good a sleeping hound wake.” Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (III, 764)

“Let sleeping dogs lie.” —idiom familiar to millions of English speakers

“Leave the dog alone, for Pete’s sake—he’s sleeping.” —a colloquial speaker concerned about grumpy dogs

Chaucer’s sentence isn’t an anacoluthon, or at least is wasn’t when he wrote it, but it is evidence of how the “correct” grammatical sequence of words in English has changed over time.

This “correct” sequence of words also varies across geographies and cultures. In India, for example, where English is one of the official languages, the language has taken on astonishing syntactical flexibility in everyday use.  Mark Abley, in his book The Prodigal Tongue, provides the following example from Anita Rau Badami’s novel The Hero’s Walk—rather than saying “But will you write to her?” one of her characters says “Will you write to her, but?” Though this construction might be found odd or just plain wrong in some English traditions, it is entirely usual in others.

So, to sum up, anacoluthons are bad for writing because they obscure meaning, but remember, what is considered an anacoluthon in one place or time may be perfectly grammatical in another.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather October 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Happy oblige to.

Kevin Dickinson October 22, 2009 at 10:20 pm

I’m so glad word I the voted for was elected the official Vest-Pocket word.

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