AskDefine | Define anacoluthon

Dictionary Definition

anacoluthon n : an abrupt change within a sentence from one syntactic structure to another [syn: anacoluthia] [also: anacolutha (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Late anacoluthon, from (anakolouthon) "without sequence", from (a-) "not" + (akolouthos) "following".


IPA: /ænəkə'lu:θɒn/


  1. A sentence or other structure with no grammatical sequence; especially when deliberate, as a rhetorical device.

Alternative spellings




  1. Anacoluthan.


Extensive Definition

An anacoluthon is a rhetorical device that can be loosely defined as a change of syntax within a sentence. More specifically, anacoluthons (or "anacolutha") are created when a sentence abruptly changes from one structure to another. Grammatically, anacoluthon is an error; however, in rhetoric it is a figure that shows excitement, confusion, or laziness. In poetics it is sometimes used in dramatic monologues and in verse drama. In prose, anacoluthon is often used in stream of consciousness writing, such as that of James Joyce, because it is characteristic of informal human thought.
In its most restrictive meaning, anacoluthon requires that the introductory elements of a sentence lack a proper object or complement. For example, if the beginning of a sentence sets up a subject and verb, but then the sentence changes its structure so that no direct object is given, the result is anacoluthon. Essentially, it requires a change of subject or verb from the stated to an implied term. The sentence must be "without completion" (literally what "anacoluthon" means). A sentence that lacks a head, that supplies instead the complement or object without subject, is anapodoton.
As a figure, anacoluthon directs a reader's attention, especially in poetry, to the syntax itself and highlights the mechanics of the meaning rather than the object of the meaning. It can, therefore, be a distancing technique in some poetry.


  • Agreements entered into when one state of facts exists — are they to be maintained regardless of changing conditions? (John George Diefenbaker)
  • Had ye been there — for what could that have done? (John Milton in Lycidas)
  • Shakespeare uses anacoluthon in his history plays:
    "Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
    That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
    Let him depart. (William Shakespeare, Henry V IV iii 346-6).
  • Additionally, Conrad Aiken's Rimbaud and Verlaine has an extended anacoluthon as it discusses anacoluthon:
    "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..."


The word 'anacoluthon' comes from the Greek 'anakolouthon' which derives from the prefix an (not) combined with the root akolouthos (following), which, incidentally, is precisely the meaning of the Latin phrase non sequitur in logic. However, in Classical rhetoric anacoluthon was used both for the logical error of non sequitur and for the syntactic effect or error of changing an expected following or completion to a new or improper one.

Use of the term

The term "anacoluthon" is used primarily within an academic context. It is most likely to appear in a study of rhetoric or poetry. For example The King's English, an English style guide written by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler mentions it as a major grammatical mistake.
"We can hardly conclude even so desultory a survey of grammatical misdemeanours as this has been without mentioning the most notorious of all. The anacoluthon is a failure to follow on, an unconscious departure from the grammatical scheme with which a sentence was started, the getting switched off, imperceptibly to the writer, very noticeably to his readers, from one syntax track to another."
The term does occasionally appear in popular media as well. The word, though not the underlying meaning, has been popularized, due to its use as an imprecation by Captain Haddock in the English translations of The Adventures of Tintin series of books.
Anacoluthon is sometimes (wrongly) confused with anacoloutha, a term that denotes metaphorical substitutions.


  • Aiken, Conrad. Selected Poems. London: OUP, 2003. 141.
  • Brown, Huntington and Albert W. Halsall. "Anacoluthon" in Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 67-8.
  • Greek Grammar
anacoluthon in Catalan: Anacolut
anacoluthon in German: Anakoluth
anacoluthon in Spanish: Anacoluto
anacoluthon in French: Anacoluthe
anacoluthon in Galician: Anacoluto
anacoluthon in Italian: Anacoluto
anacoluthon in Dutch: Anakoloet
anacoluthon in Portuguese: Anacoluto
anacoluthon in Romanian: Anacolut
anacoluthon in Russian: Анаколуф
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